Fears Grow of a Himalayan Tsunami as Glaciers Melt

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Prakash Mathema / AFP / Getty Images

The Khumbu Glacier, one of the longest glaciers in the world, in the Everest-Khumbu region, on Dec. 4, 2009.

Melting glaciers and rising temperatures are forming a potentially destructive combination in the deep ravines of Nepal’s Himalayan foothills, and the Phulping Bridge — on the Araniko Highway linking Kathmandu with the Chinese border — is a good place to see just how dangerous the pairing can be.

A bare concrete pillar stands there, little noticed by the drivers of trucks, laden with Chinese goods, that rattle along at high speeds across the bridge, about 110 km from Kathmandu. The pillar is all that’s left of the original Phulping Bridge, which was swept away by floodwaters in July 1981. The deluge was not caused, as is common, by monsoon rain, but by the bursting of a glacial lake. The force of the raging torrent was strong enough to dislodge boulders 30 m across. They still lie in the Bhote Koshi River.

(PHOTOS: Vanishing Glaciers)

Glacial-lake outbursts, as they’re known, are not new. They occur every time the natural dams of ice or accumulated rocky deposits that hold back glacial lakes give way because of seismic activity, erosion or simple water pressure. Millions of cubic meters of meltwater can be released as a result, sometimes over the course of a few days or — far more frighteningly — in a matter of minutes. During the past century, at least 50 glacial-lake outbursts were recorded in the Himalayas, according to data maintained by the Kathmandu-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD). But what is new is that the lakes are forming and growing much more quickly because the glaciers are melting faster than ever.

The potential of a Himalayan tsunami is a hazard of global warming that has yet to be given much attention by outsiders, but it is a daily preoccupation of ICIMOD program coordinator Pradeep Mool. He told TIME that there were some 20,000 glacial lakes in the Hindu Kush Himalayan region, extending from Afghanistan to Burma. In some parts of the Himalayas, like the Dudh Koshi area in eastern Nepal, the melt rate is alarmingly high.

“Almost all the glaciers [in Dudh Koshi] are retreating at rates of 10 to 59 m annually,” Mool says, “but the rate for some has accelerated during the last half-decade to 74 m annually.” He explained that this had created 24 new glacial lakes in the area, which now had a total of 34 such bodies of water. At least 10 of them are considered dangerous.

Research by a team from the University of Milan, released this month, found that in the past 50 years glaciers in the Everest region had shrunk by 13% and the snow line was now seen about 180 m higher up. Sudeep Thakuri, a researcher with the team, says the melting was most likely caused by warming temperatures and was certain to continue. Since 1992, premonsoon and winter temperatures in the Everest region have increased by 0.6ºC.

Earthquakes also add to the risk. “Earthquakes could act as major triggers for glacial-lake outbursts,” Mool says. He feels that much better monitoring of the lakes is needed to get a proper assessment of the dangers.

Down in the Bhote Koshi Valley, villagers now rely on text messages for warnings of potential floods, landslides and other hazards. The power station near the village of Jhirpu Phulpingkatt will issue a warning of a glacial-lake outburst, but people in the area will only have a few minutes’ notice before the floodwaters arrive, and only glacial-lake outbursts in Nepali territory can be immediately detected. There are at least six glacial lakes close by in Tibet that lie outside the warning system, and their outbursts will be detected only when the waters enter Nepali territory, according to the plant’s acting manager Janak Raj Pant. But regardless of where an outburst originates, he says, “All of us would have to run for our lives.” Seaborne tsunamis have already unleashed enough terror this century. Let’s hope that no comparable disasters dwell in the Himalayas’ icy ravines.

INTERACTIVENew Satellite Images Reveal Decades of Change on Earth

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44 comments
valentine.godoflove
valentine.godoflove

IN 1970.......THE ENVIRONMENTAL WACKOS......PREDICTED THAT DUE TO GLOBAL WARMING......THAT BY THE YEAR 2000 THE OCEANS WOULD RISE AND FLOOD NEW YORK, AND THOUSANDS OF OTHER SEA SIDE CITIES......

NOW THEY PREDICT ANOTHER APOCALYPSE......

COMRADE STALIN WOULD HAVE TOLD HIS NKVD.CHEKA UNDER LAVRENTI BERIA TO SHOOT THIS IDIOTS !!!!!!!!!

valentine, comedian,lol

monahb
monahb

@climatehawk1 @TIMEWorld The use of fresh water for fracking and tar sands extraction should be stopped. Glaciers feed major rivers.

crygdyllyn
crygdyllyn

Why can't the ice dams be destroyed deliberately in a controlled way? That way smaller amounts of water may be released, and people downstream would be prepared. 

VijayBanga
VijayBanga

You cannot start running today and if there is a disaster there is no escape so what next, only creating fear in the minds is no good

mrlsthrm
mrlsthrm

Looks like a lot of water that could be used in sub-continent.  If only there is a way to relieve the buildup in controlled fashion....

Petri47
Petri47

@TIME @TIMEWorld A tsunami is a big sea water wave/s. From Himalayan the appriate word is flood. Also, tsunami is different than maremoto.

realitarian
realitarian

Good time to buy precious real-estate there NOW. Imagine when the glaciers all melt, you are looking around beautiful green tall mountains from you log cabin atop Mt. Everest sipping warm tea.



JonPrice
JonPrice

The author and editors apparently don't realize that it's the rising temporatures that are causing the glaciers to melt faster ("see just how dangerous the pairing can be").  BTW It's now Myanmar, not Burma.

TheCaz64
TheCaz64

The author did not see the memo then?  Temperatures have flat-lined for >15 years, and the latest global composite shows the start of a major cooling period.

gopvictory
gopvictory

It has happen for thousands of years.

ChrisRapier
ChrisRapier

@TheCaz64 Sorry, You happen to be mistaken. Temperatures have been rising in some regions. In other regions they have been falling as weather patterns shift. So while global averages may seem stable at the moment there warming in the higher altitudes and latitudes. Seriously, the data is all there and maybe you want to argue with the numbers but they are what they are.

ChrisRapier
ChrisRapier

@gopvictory Yes it has. The Badlands were created by a vast glacial lake suddenly melting and carving out the canyons and mesas in a matter of hours. Still, I can't help but think you are trying, and failing, to make a larger point. What would that point be? Would it be something along the lines of "This has happened before so it's a natural process so we don't need to worry about it?" If that is your point might I ask if you feel the same way about plagues? How about famine? Murder? All of these things have been happening for tens of thousands of years, should we no longer be concerned about them? 

twitchedeye
twitchedeye

@abhikdas ha ha, rem how cold the water was dude? Washing face was painful and U plan to swim in it :o

Caspian
Caspian

@ArthurA.Roberts Looks like you are the one since you can't think on your own and parrot what these so called climate scientists who survive on research grants tell you!

Caspian
Caspian

It's been happening LIKE in volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. In the sense that its NOT man made. There is no relationship between CO2 amounts in the atmosphere and warming as much as these so called climate scientists claim. In the 70's these scientists were running around like chickens with their head cut off claiming that the ice age was coming that that we need to do something immediately to prevent this from happening. 

Caspian
Caspian

The cooling argument made by scientists in the 70's were made by prominent scientists. These articles that were peer reviewed were carried by Life Science, Newsweek, Time, NY Times, Washington Post and other prominent media organizations. The argument then as is now was that "they are unanimous in the view". 


CO2 barely makes 3% of ALL greenhouse gases. Not a significant amount to be of a major impact. CO2 levels have changed in the past without human intervention. Research on ice cores have only proven that the levels have risen after cooling or warming and not prior. 


Again, I don't buy the argument that since scientists have spent significant amounts of their time studying climate change that it becomes any more believable than saying that everyone should listen to theologians with PhD's who have spent their entire lives and often giving their lives to the cause. 

ChrisRapier
ChrisRapier

@Caspian I love it when people bring up the cooling hypothesis that had a brief flare up in the mid 70s. Okay, quick time line. The first ideas about global warming actually goes back to the early 1900s. It started to pick up steam in the 1950s when scientists started looking at the problem more rigorously. New scientific methods and data helped move it from speculation to serious investigations during that time. Now, in the 1970s you had a small number of scientists talk about how the warming hypothesis was wrong and their interpretation of the data showed a cooling effect from high level particulates in the atmosphere caused by, get this, pollution. Their papers were not very well received and the scientific community quickly shot their theory down. Unfortunately, it ended up being a media friendly story that got a flurry of coverage and a couple bad movies. In the scientific community few people thought the cooling earth hypothesis was tenable and even it's proponents discarded it shortly. Since that time we've gotten more and more data that clearly shows that the climate is shifting with a trend towards warmer temperatures. Some areas will end up being cooler and some will be warmer. Some will by drier and some will be wetter. We cannot say with 100% certainty what will happen but it is impossible to fundamentally change atmospheric chemistry without it having an impact - the physics of greenhouse gases are simply too well understood to pretend otherwise.

Now, I'm not sure where you are getting the idea that CO2 and global climate shifts are not related. I know some people have been saying that but seriously - the data and scientific community don't support that conclusion. Now, as for me, I'm personally more willing to listen to the people that do this sort of thing for a living - the people that have dedicated their entire lives to science - far more than random dude on the internet with a blog. It's a credibility thing. I mean seriously, let say you suddenly start coughing up blood. Are you going to see a doctor or the homeless guy that lives on the corner under a shopping cart? I'm guessing you'd go with the guy with a degree.

Trust me, I know how hard it is to accept something you don't want to hear as the truth. You end up latching on to almost anything that will let you keep going about your life the way you always have. I mean, why invite extra pain and discomfort if you don't have to. Right? Of course, just because we don't want something to be true doesn't mean that it isn't. When things get really serious we have to step back and look at the information and make a clear headed decision based on the facts and only the facts. When you put the emotion aside the simply truth is that the best information we have, information we have been collecting for 6 decades now, tells us that this climate is shifting and that human actions are responsible for it. Changes int he output of the sun, orbital variations, etc etc etc don't have enough of an impact to account for what we are seeing. It's us. We need to accept that. Once we have we can start talking about if there is anything we can actually do about it.