The Himalayan glacier disaster highlights the risks of climate change

NEW DELHI (AP) – When Ravi Chopra saw a devastating flood of water and debris down from a Himalayan glacier on Sunday, his first thought was that this was exactly the scenario his team had warned the Indian government in 2014.

At least 31 people have died, 165 have disappeared and many are feared to have died. The flood first burst into a small dam and gathered more energy as it became heavier and heavier from the debris that had accumulated along the way. It then broke into a larger dam under construction and gathered even more energy.

The Supreme Court of India commissioned Chopra and other experts to study the impact of retreating glaciers on dams. They have warned that warming due to climate change will melt the glaciers of the Himalayas and promote avalanches and landslides, and that building dams in a fragile ecosystem is dangerous.

“They were clearly warned and yet they went ahead,” said Chopra, director of the nonprofit Folk Science Institute.

Scientists first suspected an icy lake broke on Sunday. After examining satellite images, it is now believed that the landslide and avalanche were the more likely causes of the disaster. It is unclear whether the landslide caused an avalanche of ice and debris, or whether falling ice caused the landslide, said Mohammad Farooq Azam, who studies glaciers at the Indian Institute of Technology in Indore.

It is known that a 2-kilometer (1.2-mile) rock, boulders, ice and snow fell down on a vertical hillside on Sunday. And now scientists are trying to figure out if the heat from the friction is enough to melt the snow and ice to flood the water, he said.

Experts say the disaster underscores the fragility of the Himalayan mountains, where climate change is changing the lives of millions.

Even if the world meets its most ambitious climate change targets, rising temperatures will melt one-third of the Himalayan glaciers by the end of the century, a 2019 report according to the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development. Himalayan glaciers have been melting twice as fast since 2000 as in the previous 25 years due to man-made climate change, researchers wrote in Science Advances In 2019.

It is not known whether this disaster was caused by climate change. But climate change could exacerbate landslides and avalanches. As glaciers melt as a result of warming, valleys previously saturated with ice open up and allow space for landslides to move in. Elsewhere, steep mountain slopes may be “glued together” in part by ice tightly frozen in the gaps.

“Once warming occurs and the ice melts, the pieces can move downwards more easily, the water lubricating them,” explained Richard B. Alley, a professor of earth sciences at Pennsylvania State University.

With warming, the ice also freezes significantly less: previously its temperature ranged from minus 6 degrees Celsius to minus 20 C, and now it is minus 2 C (from 21.2 degrees Fahrenheit to minus 4 F, now to 28.4 F), said Azam. The ice is still frozen, but it’s closer to its melting point, so it takes less heat for an avalanche than it did a few decades ago, ”Azam added.

Another threat is the rupture of the icy lake – which some first suspected was the cause of Sunday’s disaster. The danger of these expanding lakes cannot be ignored, said Joerg Michael Schaefer, a climate scientist at Columbia University who specializes in ice and especially the Himalayan glaciers.

The water released into the rivers by the lakes is equivalent to the energy of “several atomic bombs” and can provide clean, carbon-free energy through hydropower, Schaefer said. But it is dangerous to set up power plants without having to look up and mitigate the risk by leaking water from the lakes to control the levels, he said.

“The rough power of these things just blows his head a lot,” especially when they break, he said. – You can’t tame that tiger. You must prevent this.

The Uttarakhand government says it is constantly facing an “acute power shortage” and has been forced to spend $ 137 million a year to buy electricity, according to documents submitted to India’s Supreme Court. The state has the second largest potential in hydropower generation in India, but experts say solar and wind power offered more sustainable and less risky alternatives in the long run.

Development was needed for the upliftment of the impoverished region, but experts say such projects need to take into account the ecological fragility of the mountains and the risks unpredictable by climate change.

For example, during the construction of the second dam, which was hit by Sunday’s flood in 2009, workers accidentally punctured a reservoir. Sufficient drinking water drank 2-3 million people to drink, 70 million liters (18.5 million gallons) a day, for a month, and nearby villages are struggling with water shortages.

Development plans must “go hand in hand with the environment, not against it,” said Anjal Prakash, a professor at the Indian Business School who has contributed to research into the effects of climate change in the Himalayas for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

“Climate change is here and now. That will not happen later, ”he said.


Victoria Milko in Jakarta (Indonesia) and Seth Borenstein in Kensington (Maryland) contributed to the report.


The Department of Health and Science of the Associated Press receives support from the Department of Science Education at the Howard Hughes Institute of Medicine. All content is the sole responsibility of AP.