Giant, similar to M8 earthquake-triggered ice avalanches in the eastern Kunlun Shan, northern Tibet: Characteristics, nature and dynamics

Publication Type:

Journal Article


Geological Society of America Bulletin, Volume 116, Number 3-4, p.394-406 (2004)



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Several giant ice avalanches were initiated by slope failure from ice caps due to strong ground motion during the 14 November 2001 M-w = 7.9 Kokoxili earthquake on the Kunlun fault. Four ice avalanches were identified on the north slope of the Burhan Budai Shan several kilometers east of the Kunlun Pass, and two were identified on the south slope of the eastern Yuxi Feng, which is similar to50 km west of the Kunlun Pass. These ice avalanches originated from steep-sided ice caps and progressed over and past the termini of outlet valley glaciers. In the Burhan Budai Shan, the ice avalanches comprised ice and snow that reached 2-3 km down valley beyond the snouts of the contemporary glaciers. Detailed study of the largest ice avalanche (B2) shows that the initial movement over the contemporary glacier was turbulent in nature, having a velocity >35 ms(-1). Beyond the contemporary glacier, the ice avalanche was confined within steep valley walls and entrenched paraglacial fans. Before coming to rest, this ice avalanche moved as a Bingham plastic flow at a velocity of less than or equal to21 ms(-1). These ice avalanches transported little rock debris, and it is thus unlikely that they are important in contributing to the landscape evolution of this region. Yet, given the appropriate geologic and climatic conditions, ice avalanching may be an important process in the landscape evolution of high mountainous terrains. The frequency of such events is unknown, but such phenomena may become more common in the future as a consequence of increased glacier and slope instability caused by human-induced climate change. Ice avalanches, therefore, likely constitute a significant geologic hazard in the near future.


van der Woerd, J Owen, LA Tapponnier, P Xu, XW Kervyn, F Finkel, RC Barnard, PL