Three things to know about the disastrous flood in India

A collapsing glacier or a landslide might be at fault, with climate change playing a role

Flood in Chamoli District, India

At least 30 people were killed and the Tapovan Hydropower Plant (shown) was swept away when a massive flood of water, mud and debris flowed into northern India’s Chamoli District, part of the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand, on February 7. The flood may have been caused by a landslide or by an overflowing glacial lake.

Rishabh R. Jain/ AP Photo

A flash flood surged down a river in India’s Himalayan Uttarakhand state on February 7, killing at least 30 people and washing away two hydroelectric power stations.

As rescue workers search for more than 100 people who are still missing, officials and scientists are trying to unravel the causes of the sudden flood. Did a glacier high up in the mountains collapse, releasing a huge plug of frigid meltwater that spilled into the river? Or was the culprit a landslide that then triggered an avalanche? And what, if any, link might these events have to a changing climate?

Here are three things to know about what might have caused the disaster in Uttarakhand.

1. One possible culprit was the sudden break of a glacier high in the mountains.

News reports in the immediate wake of the disaster suggested that the floodwaters were caused by the sudden overflow of a glacial lake high up in the mountain, an event called a glacial lake outburst flood.

“It’s likely too early to know what exactly happened,” says Anjal Prakash, the research director of the Bharti Institute of Public Policy at the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad. Satellite images show that a section of a glacier broke off, but how that break relates to the subsequent floods is still unknown. One possibility is that the glacier was holding back a lake of meltwater, and that heavy snowfall in the region two days earlier added enough volume to the lake that the water forced its way out, breaking the glacier and surging into nearby rivers.

This scenario is certainly in line with known hazards for the region. “These mountains are very fragile,” says Prakash, who was also a lead author on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2019 special report on oceans and the cryosphere, Earth’s icy places. But, he notes, there isn’t yet much on-the-ground data to help clarify events. “The efforts are still focused on relief at the moment.”

2. A landslide may be to blame instead.

Other researchers contend that the disaster wasn’t caused by a glacial lake outburst flood at all. Instead, says Daniel Shugar, a geomorphologist at the University of Calgary in Canada, satellite images snapped during the disaster show the telltale marks of a landslide: a dark scar snaking through the white snow and clouds of dust clogging the air above. “You could see this train of dust in the valley, and that’s common for a very large landslide,” Shugar says.

“WOW,” he wrote on Twitter the morning of February 7, posting side-by-side satellite shots of a dark area of possible “massive dust deposition,” contrasted against the same snowy, pristine region just the day before.

Landslides — the sudden failure of a slope, sending a rush of rocks and sediment downhill — can be triggered by anything from an earthquake to an intense deluge of rain. In high, snowy mountains, cycles of freezing and thawing and refreezing again can also begin to break the ground apart; the ice-filled cracks can slowly widen over time, setting the stage for sudden failure, and then, disaster.

The satellite images seem to point clearly to such a landslide, rather than a typical glacial lake overflow, Shugar says. The force of the landslide may have actually broken off that piece of hanging glacier, he says. Another line of evidence against a sudden lake burst is that “there were no lakes of any size visible” in the satellite images taken over the region.

However, an outlying question for this hypothesis is where the floodwaters came from. It might be that one of the rivers draining down the mountain was briefly dammed by the rockfall; a sudden release of that dam could send a large plug of water from the river swiftly and disastrously downhill. “But that’s a pure guess at the moment,” Shugar says.

3. It’s not yet clear whether climate change played a role in the disaster.

The risk of both glacial lake outburst floods and freeze-thaw-related landslides in Asia’s high mountains has increased due to climate change. At first glance, “it was a climate event,” Prakash says. “But the data are still coming.”

The region, which includes the Hindu Kush Himalayan mountains and the Tibetan Plateau, “has been a climate change hot spot for a pretty long time,” Prakash says. The region is often called Earth’s third pole, because the stores of ice and snow in the Himalayan watershed amount to the largest reserves of freshwater outside of the polar regions. The region is the source of 10 major river systems that provide water to almost 2 billion people.

Climate change reports have warned that warming is not only threatening this water supply, but also increasing the likelihood of natural hazards (SN: 5/29/19). In the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2019 special report on oceans and the cryosphere, scientists noted that glacier retreat, melting snow and thawing permafrost are making mountain slopes more unstable and also increasing the number of glacial lakes, upping the likelihood of a sudden, catastrophic failure (SN: 9/25/19).

A 2019 comprehensive assessment focusing on climate change’s impacts in Asia’s high mountains found that the glaciers in the region have retreated much more quickly in the last decade than was anticipated, Prakash says, “and that is alarming for us.” Here’s another way to look at it: Glaciers are retreating twice as fast as they were at the end of the 20th century (SN: 6/19/19).

Glacier-related landslides in the region have also become increasingly common in the last decade, as the region warms and destabilizing freeze-thaw cycles within the ground occur higher and higher up on the slopes.

But in the case of this particular disaster, Shugar says, it’s just hard to say conclusively at this point what role climate change might have played, or even what specific event might have triggered a landslide. “Sometimes there is no trigger; sometimes it’s just time,” he says. “Or it’s that we just don’t understand the trigger.”

Carolyn Gramling is the earth & climate writer. She has bachelor’s degrees in geology and European history and a Ph.D. in marine geochemistry from MIT and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

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