What on Earth

Deadly glacier break in Himalayas a warning of hazards in a warmer world, scientists say

Glaciologists say the deadly slide in northern India earlier this month is a sign of how areas around glaciers are becoming more dangerous as a result of climate change.

More than 200 dead or missing following disaster in northern India on Feb. 7

Members of National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) carry the body of a victim on Feb. 9 after recovering it from the debris after a part of a glacier broke away, in Uttarakhand, India. Scientists are still trying to determine what caused the glacier to break. (Reuters)

Glaciologists say the deadly slide in northern India earlier this month is a sign of how areas around glaciers are becoming more dangerous as a result of climate change.

Local authorities said Tuesday 146 people are still missing and 58 confirmed dead following the slide that wiped out one hydro-electric construction site and damaged another further downstream.

It's not known yet exactly what triggered the torrent of ice, water, mud and other debris on Feb. 7 in the Chamoli district of Uttarakhand state, but it started when a chunk of glacier broke away just below Nanda Devi, India's second-highest Himalayan peak.

Scientists are still investigating what caused the glacier to break — possibly an avalanche or a release of accumulated water.

What is known is that a warming planet is increasing the rate at which glaciers retreat and danger grows. Meltwater around the glaciers makes them less stable — something that could prove devastating to Canadian communities situated close to glaciers as well.

WATCH | Video captures catastrophic flood after glacier break in northern India:

Video captures moment of avalanche, catastrophic flood in northern India


19 days ago
Dramatic video has caught the moment when raging floodwaters in northern India destroyed part of a hydroelectric project, after a Himalayan glacier broke and allowed a torrent of water to sweep through the valley below. 0:58

Didn't have to happen, glaciologist says

Santosh Kumar Rai is a scientist who studies glaciers in the region. His office at the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology, an institute under the jurisdiction of the government of India's department of science and technology, is about 140 km from the site of the devastation. 

He told What on Earth host Laura Lynch the slide could have been predicted with better monitoring and, had development in the area been better planned, possibly avoided altogether. Rai, who has a PhD in geochemistry, said people in the area feel angry at the government for poor planning, especially given that a glacier-related flooding disaster occurred in the region in 2013, claiming the lives of 699 people

"I'm also angry because they did not do enough ground work and research, and they did not bother about installing some monitoring instrument like a weather station," said Rai. "Many people are saying that a lot of snowfall occurred on the fifth and sixth of February, but we don't have any information because there was no automatic weather station ... above the construction site."

Given there is "a fair chance" a glacier can break and generate a lot of water mass in the area below, he said, risks to the construction sites below should have been studied thoroughly before the projects went ahead. "At least some early warning system or something could have been put in place."

Rai said his scientific organization has urged more action, but hasn't been given the resources to install monitors at every glacier in the state.

"To install such instruments at every glacier is not possible for us because Uttarakhand has more than 1,000 glaciers, so we cannot put instrumentation in every area."

Members of the NDRF gather near the debris flow for a rescue mission on Feb. 10. At least 58 people are confirmed dead, with more than 140 others missing. (Anushree Fadnavis/Reuters)

Part of the challenge is population growth, which is happening at a much faster pace in northern India than in the south. Even in the remote areas of Uttarakhand along the border with Tibet, people are trying to build better lives for their young families, said Rai — lives that include electricity, schools and hospitals.   

Additionally, he said, people are becoming more daring about building houses high up in the mountains. "So we have to put some regulatory rules and procedures in for such uncontrolled development, particularly in the high reaches of [the] Himalayas."

UBC Glaciologist Michele Koppes stands on the Antarctic Peninsula. She said the massive slide that occurred when part of a glacier broke away in northern India should serve as a warning about what can happen to communities living close to glaciers in other parts of the world, including Canada. (Submitted by Michele Koppes)

More frequent hazards

Michele Koppes is one of the scientists from around the world who are collaborating remotely using satellite imagery to assess what happened in Uttarakhand.

A glaciologist and an associate professor at the University of British Columbia, she wants to create the sort of early warning system Rai said was missing at the Nanda Devi disaster, in order to save lives in other places, including here in Canada.

"We want to understand what happened here so that we can make changes and make recommendations to mountain communities worldwide that are experiencing these kinds of hazards," said Koppes, who holds a PhD in earth and spaces sciences and is Canada Research Chair in landscapes of climate change.

She said meltwater from snow that fell in the preceding days could have lubricated the slide. "We also know that the risk of these types of slides increases as there is more glacier retreat happening in the upper valleys, but also thawing of the permafrost."

Koppes told Lynch this is an issue closer to home, as well. "There have been a number of landslides that we have been tracking that are happening in the B.C. Coast mountains."

People help an injured woman on Feb. 12 to board a helicopter after a flash flood swept a mountain valley destroying dams and bridges in Uttarakhand, India. (Anushree Fadnavis/Reuters)

One of those happened in Bute Inlet, just 220 kilometres northwest of Vancouver, in December.

"We're seeing more frequent landslides happening, more frequent hazards. And they're getting larger, and sometimes when they end in a body of water, they can actually cause a tsunami that can travel hundreds of kilometres away," said Koppes.

"We're just starting to acknowledge the risks and the potential for devastation to communities that are living along the coast."

B.C. already has a tsunami warning system in place along the coast, but Koppes wants to see something similar developed for slides like the ones in Bute Inlet and Uttarakhand.

'Front lines of climate change'

For 20 years, Flip Wester — a scientist with the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development in Kathmandu, Nepal — has been warning about the risks a warming world poses to people in the Himalayas. 

"The mountains are now rapidly changing due to global warming," he told What on Earth.

His organization has worked with the governments of Nepal and China to put early warning systems in place for the glacial lakes forming in the Tibetan plateau near Everest.

"So we've done modelling work on that and how much time you would have to get out of the way. And actually, you have less than an hour and early warning systems in that case have been installed and they have worked," said Wester.

Flip Wester, a scientist with the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development in Kathmandu, Nepal, has been warning about the risks a warming world poses to people in the Himalayas. (Submitted by Flip Wester)

But in the case of the Uttarakhand slide, even if there had been an early warning system in place, its size may have made it tough to get out of the way, he said.

"It would appear that quite a large segment of a rock face high up on the mountain slipped and fell off, basically a size of 40 football fields of rock, that fell down and then hit the valley below. And then that turned into a massive debris, water flow. You cannot build early warning systems that can help you with that." 

Still, warning systems are worth building for the loss of life they can prevent in other situations, said Wester, who has a PhD in environmental science.

He said what's happening in the Himalayas merits the attention of Canadians.

"We're warming twice as fast as the rest of the world — as I might add Canada is also — and the impacts we are starting to see are so much larger than even five or 10 years ago was expected.

"There's also 240 million people living in these mountains … and they deserve to be heard and they deserve also to be supported on these front lines of climate change." 

Written by Brandie Weikle with files from Molly Segal, Thomson Reuters and Associated Press. Produced by Molly Segal.


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