Here are the updates regarding Uttarakhand glacier disaster and its potential linkages with Climate Change.

What has happened in the Chamoli district of Uttarakhand?

On the morning of 7th February 2021, a giant portion of the glacier in Reni village of the Garhwal region slid off and flowed down the Rishiganga river. This led to a flash flood in the river, with the massive deluge causing catastrophic damage in its wake.

What is the scale of the damage due to these flash floods?

Tapovan Hydro-Electric Power Dam was completely washed away. The explosion of the glacier caused heavy damage in the surrounding areas: two bridges near Tapovan and Malari Valley are washed off; construction work and hutments on valley bottom are damaged and rubble was seen from the entrance of Nanda Devi glacier till as down Dhauliganga and Alaknanda (Source).

While rescue forces attempt to provide relief in the affected areas, 26 people have lost their lives while more than 170 people are reportedly missing. Heavy excavators have been brought in to remove the debris and slush and to open the tunnel near the Tapovan dam in Chamoli. Increased water in the local river has been hampering rescue efforts.

What caused this disaster?

As rescue operations are of utmost urgency at the moment, finding the cause of this disaster will be the second priority. A team of scientists surveyed Joshimath to ascertain the main reasons behind this calamity. Ongoing speculation is currently taking place, but finding the real cause will take a few days.

Uttarakhand Glacier Burst
Heavy damage to hydel projects at the epicentre. Image Source

It is possible that an avalanche or a landslide created an obstruction in the flow of the river or streams in the upper mountains, increasing the pressure of the flowing water, leading to destruction and the mass flood.

Another possible cause is the construction of the Rishi Ganga Power Project itself. Various petitioners had allegedly claimed that this hydropower plant could harm the ecosystem as constructions of these projects in fragile, disaster-prone locations could cause destruction. It is currently unknown if this dam was the cause behind this glacier outburst, but with research conducted by geologists, the matter will be looked into soon. 

One of the most evident causes of the glacier breach is climate change. With global warming ravaging our planet and melting ice caps and glacier structures worldwide, we cannot ignore this factor. A majority of the Himalayas’ glaciers are known to be receding, all leading to the formation of several proglacial lakes. Proglacial lakes, formed after glaciers retreat, with additional water or pressure, or structural weakness, can cause both natural and human-made dams to burst, sending a mass of floodwater surging down the rivers and streams fed by the glacier.

Read how Global Warming and Climate Change effect our life directly and indirectly.

Scientists are almost sure that the incident was not a result of any glacier ‘breaking off’ as glaciers are not known to break in a manner that ice-sheets in the polar regions do. Some chunks of snow near the tip of the glacier can slide down, but they do not result in vast amounts of water like those seen in incidents like these. (Source: The Indian Express)

Global Warming

Can these disasters be prevented or mitigated?

Many glaciers and glacial lakes in the Himalayas remain unmonitored as they are upstream of steep river valleys. Thus, unfortunately, we cannot predict the activity of these frozen structures. 

However, environmentalists have suggested against building structures in such regions as these areas are prone to landslides and flash floods. Glacial forms can cause extreme flooding when they break and cause a catastrophe when these floods reach inhabited regions and sensitive infrastructure. This can be a possible prevention for curbing immense scale destruction.

Controlling climate change and greenhouse emissions is another option. Glacial outbursts are bound to increase with global warming. This is because the rising temperatures lead to a higher rate of melting of glaciers, thus affecting its stability. It’s only when we limit and address global warming that we can expect lesser occurrences of such events in the future.

Article by Ruhi Nadkarni, Team ulaunch.

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