What Caused Uttarakhand Glacier Burst? Experts Weigh In

A glacier break triggered flash floods in Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district, leaving several dead and many missing.

Updated
India
3 min read
Rescue operations underway near Dhauliganga hydropower project after a glacier broke off in Joshimath causing a massive flood in the Dhauli Ganga river, in Chamoli district of Uttarakhand, Sunday, 7 February, 2021.
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At least seven people were confirmed dead and 170 others were reported to be missing after a glacier break triggered flash floods in Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district, according to the official figures given by the State Disaster Management Center (SDMC) as of 10 pm on Sunday, 7 February.

The death toll is expected to rise as bodies are still being recovered, an NDRF official said.

However, the cause behind the disaster is still being ascertained, even as several experts and commentators have pointed towards the developmental projects, alleging that they are causing harm to the ecology of Uttarakhand.

A DRDO team of snow and avalanche experts from its newly-created Defence Geo-Informatics Research Establishment would be reaching the site on Monday to assess the situation, DRDO officials said.

Meanwhile, several experts have weighed in on how and why the tragedy struck Chamoli.

Dr Anjal Prakash: Research Director and Adjunct Associate Professor, ISB, Hyderabad

Dr Anjal Prakash, a Research Director and Adjunct Associate Professor at the Indian School of Business (ISB), Hyderabad, said that the climate change has altered the frequency and magnitude of the natural hazards.

An author who was Coordinating Lead Author of the special report on Oceans and Cryosphere, 2018, and Lead Author of the ongoing 6th Assessment report of IPCC, opined that prima facie, it looks like a climate change event as the glaciers are melting due to global warming.

“The IPCC’s Special Report on Oceans and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate (SROCC) reports that climate change has altered the frequency and magnitude of the natural hazards. The scientists reported with medium confidence that in some regions snow avalanches involving wet snow have increased while the rain on snow floods have also increased at lower elevations in springs,” he said.

Prakash further said that while there’s no data to give information on what has caused the avalanche in the Chamoli district yet, the glaciers are melting due to global warming and can very much be the reason behind Sunday’s disaster.

“The impact of global warming on glacial retreat is well documented. The recent assessment report called the HI-MAP report facilitated by ICIMOD has also pointed these out. The report shows that temperatures are rising in the Hindu-Kush Himalayan (HKH) region and the rise in global temperature will have more impact in the Himalayan region due to elevation-dependent warming,” he said.

“If the world can keep the temperature rise to below 1.5 degrees Celsius, in the HKH region it would translate to at least a rise of 1.8 degrees Celsius, and in some places, above 2.2 degrees Celsius,” he said.

He further asserted that the Himalayan area is also least monitored region and this event actually shows how vulnerable we could be.

“I would request the government to spend more resources in monitoring the region better so that we have more information about the change process. The result would be that we are more aware and could develop better adaptation practice,” he said.

Dr Farooq Azam, Assistant Professor, Glacialogy & Hydrology, IIT Indore

Dr Farooq Azam, Assistant Professor, Glacialogy and Hydrology, IIT Indore said that while one needs to wait for data and research to ascertain the reason, a water pocket in the region may be a possible cause.

“It's a very rare incident for a glacial burst to happen. Satellite and Google Earth images do not show a glacial lake near the region, but there's a possibility that there may be a water pocket in the region. Water pockets are lakes inside the glaciers, which may have erupted leading to this event,” he said.

He further said that global warming and climate change are undoubtedly a cause for frequent disasters in the region.

“It is unlikely that this was a cloud burst, since weather reports in Chamoli district show sunny weather till today with no record of precipitation. There is no doubt that global warming has resulted in the warming of the region. Climate change driven erratic weather patterns like increased snowfall and rainfall, warmer winters has led to the melting point of a lot of snow. The thermal profile of ice is increasing, where earlier the temperature of ice ranged from -6 to -20 degree Celcius, it is now -2 degree Celcius, making it more susceptible to melting,” he said.

Uttarakhand Chief Minister Trivendra Singh Rawat on Sunday said that only experts can tell the reason behind the glacier outburst and that the government is currently focused on saving the lives of people.

While Prime Minister Narendra Modi has approved an ex-gratia of Rs 2 lakh each from the Prime Minister’s National Relief Fund (PMNRF) for the kin of the deceased, the state government, too, has promised financial assistance of Rs 4 lakh each.

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