climate change

Indian glacier collapse carries the footprint of climate change

Photo credit: Maxar Technologies / AFP.

By Anders Lorenzen

The collapse of a glacier in the Indian Himalayas earlier this month has left at least 54 people dead with over 150 are missing.

When part of the glacier broke away, it sent a torrent of water, rock and dust down a mountain valley below Nanda Devi, India’s second-highest peak. This swept away the small Rishiganga hydroelectric project and damaged a bigger one further down the Dhauliganga river being built by state firm NTPC.

Most of the missing are believed to shift workers at either the Tapovan hydroelectric project where the tunnel was situated, or at Rishiganga, a dam which was swept away in the flood. So far rescue workers have freed 35 construction workers trapped in a tunnel.

The damage so far includes broken bridges, cut off villages and scarred tracts of mountain landscape.

It was not immediately clear what caused the glacier burst on a bright Sunday morning. Experts said it had snowed heavily in the week in the Nanda Devi area and it was possible that some of the snow started melting and may have led to an avalanche.

Climate links

However, due to the impacts of climate change, the Himalayan glaciers are some of the most rapidly melting glaciers in the world. 

High temperatures combined with less snowfall can accelerate melting which causes water to rise to dangerous levels. In addition, seismic activity and a buildup of water pressure can cause glaciers to burst. Both activities have climate change written all over them. 

Sarah Das, an associate scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute said: “Most mountain glaciers around the world were much larger in the past and have been melting and shrinking dramatically due to climate change and global warming.” 

Dr Anjal Prakash, Research Director and Adjunct Associate Professor at the Indian School of  business (ISB) in Hyderabad added that this looks very much like a climate change event as the glaciers are melting due to climate change.

The Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) have frequently warned about the decreased stability of mountain slopes and an increase in glacier lakes as glaciers continue to melt at rapid paces.

Disasters waiting to happen

As many glaciers in the Himalayas are not monitored, experts are warning that we could witness many more disasters like these. Of the 8,000 glacial lakes in the Himalayas, 200 are classified as dangerous.

Prakash said that in order to adopt better adaptation practices, the Indian government should spend more money on monitoring the Himalayan region.

The region where the glacial burst occurred is prone to landslides and flash flooding and environmentalists have been warning against building there. 

The 520 megawatts (MW) Tapovan hydroelectric project, being built by state firm NTPC, is one of many run-of-river projects being developed to upgrade Uttarakhand’s power network.

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