World, Environment

Better monitoring critical as melting glaciers threaten lives, experts warn

Dozens died and thousands were displaced in Indian glacial lake flash flood

Anadolu staff  | 10.10.2023 - Update : 12.10.2023
Better monitoring critical as melting glaciers threaten lives, experts warn A view of the partially melting glaciers as polar bears, one of the species most affected by climate change, walk in Svalbard and Jan Mayen, on July 15, 2023. ( Sebnem Coskun - Anadolu Agency )

Dozens died and thousands were displaced in Indian glacial lake flash flood

•  Several reports warn that glaciers in the Himalayas are melting at unprecedented rates

•  Rapid development of infrastructure and tourism in region also having adverse impacts, say experts


India’s northeastern state of Sikkim is still reeling from one of the worst disasters to hit the region in decades.

Heavy rainfall battered the area and there was a glacial lake outburst flood (GLOF) at South Lhonak, a lake in northern Sikkim located at a height of 5,200 meters (17,000 feet).

The flash flooding has claimed at least 50 lives and some 80 people are still missing, while thousands more have been displaced throughout the region.

This most recent incident of an overflowing glacial lake has sparked fresh concern among experts, who are calling for improved high-altitude monitoring of meteorological parameters and glaciers to prevent future disasters.

Simon Allen, a senior disaster risk management scientist at the University of Zurich, stressed the need for comprehensive risk management efforts starting with large-scale hazard and risk mapping for GLOFs and other high-altitude risks.

“We must not only consider current conditions, but also how the hazard situation will evolve over the next decades under strong warming. Ideally, critical infrastructure should not be located in high-risk zones,” Allen, who is involved in various projects in India and Asia, told Anadolu.

If infrastructure is established in such locations, then “it must be supported with early warning systems and other risk reduction strategies, such as lake level lowering,” he said.

“Early warning systems need to be accompanied with capacity building and education programs, so local communities know how to respond in the case of a disaster,” said Allen.

In some locations across various high mountain regions, “risk cannot be sufficiently reduced and there is a need to consider safe relocation of communities as an adaptation option,” he added.

‘Himalayas warming more and faster than globe’

Several reports over the past few years suggest that glaciers in the Himalayas are melting at a much more rapid pace.

A June report by the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICMOD), an eight-nation body, said the impacts on glaciers, snow and permafrost in the Hindu Kush region are driven by global warming and are “unprecedented and largely irreversible.”

In 2021, research published in the Scientific Reports journal said glaciers in the Himalayas are melting at an “exceptional” rate, which experts believe is leading to the formation of more lakes in the mountains.

Allen said the melting of glaciers is extremely concerning, not just because of the increasing number of lakes, but also since these lakes are expanding closer to steep mountain slopes that are becoming unstable as the glaciers shrink.

“Climate warming is also leading to the thawing of ice deep inside the mountain slopes (so-called permafrost), which further reduces the stability of these slopes. Hence, we are concerned about the increasing likelihood of avalanches of ice and rock smashing into glacial lakes and causing an outburst event,” he said.

Anil Kulkarni, a renowned glaciologist and professor at the Divecha Center for Climate Change at the Indian Institute of Science, echoed Allen’s views.

“There is a major problem … essentially because we know one thing very clear that the Himalayan region is warming more and faster than other parts of the globe,” he told Anadolu.

Glaciers are retreating everywhere in the Himalayas except in the Karakoram range, he added.

“So these retreating glaciers are exposing the land and sometimes the land has depressions that get filled with water, forming glacial lakes. It is likely that in the coming future many such glaciers will be formed,” said Kulkarni.

Before investing in major infrastructure projects, all these climate related issues need to be thoroughly assessed, he added.

Mohammad Farooq Azam, who studies glaciers at the Indian Institute of Technology, said the recent Sikkim disaster was a classic example of glacial lake growth spurred by climate change.

The increasing number of glacial lakes along with the rising frequency of extreme weather and climate events “is a perfect recipe for several possible disasters,” he warned.

“Rapid infrastructure development … is making the local communities and infrastructure more vulnerable to climate change,” he said, also emphasizing the need for improved high-altitude monitoring mechanisms.

He pointed out that while many in the scientific community are involved in remote-sensing investigations of the region, only 4-5% of these researchers are working on the ground.

“We certainly need to build our capacity. Remote-sensing helped us a lot to know the potentially dangerous glacier lakes .... If needed we should drain these from time to time and set an early warning system,” he said.

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