Flooding From Climate-Driven Glacier Collapse Kills Dozens in India

Roughly 170 people are still missing after a glacial break triggered a deadly avalanche and flood in the Uttarakhand region.
February 8, 2021, 4:39pm
Image: SAAJAD HUSSAIN/ Contributor.
Image: SAAJAD HUSSAIN/ Contributor.

Roughly 170 people are missing after the collapse of a Himalayan glacier on Sunday, which sparked a devastating flood that killed at least 26 people in India’s Uttarakhand region, according to Times of India

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First responders successfully rescued 16 people who became trapped inside a tunnel during the flood, and efforts are underway to locate several dozen more who are believed to be trapped in a second tunnel site. 

The flood was triggered by an icy chunk that broke off of the Nanda Devi glacier, setting off an avalanche that tumbled into the adjacent Alaknanda river system. Though it is the middle of winter in the region, Himalayan glaciers have been steadily melting for decades due to rising global temperatures as a result of human-driven climate change, and flooding has previously been attributed to this phenomenon

“The cause of this [flood] is likely to be the impacts of warming," Dave Petley, a landslide scientist at the University of Sheffield, told NBC. "The rock masses in the high mountains are stuck together with ice in cracks and fractures. As this ice thaws, the incidence of these events increases.”

The flood was so intense that it washed away the Rishiganga Hydroelectric Project, a dam in the  river, allowing surging waters to batter the Tapovan-Vishnugad power plant further downstream. A bridge linking villages in the area was also destroyed, prompting officials to airdrop food to local communities.

As the deluge swept through the Tapovan plant, people located in the facility’s tunnels were taken completely off-guard.

“We heard screams, 'get out, get out,'” said one unnamed survivor in hospital, according to the BBC. “We didn't know what was happening. We started running to escape when the force of the water gushed in through the mouth of the tunnel. We couldn't get out because of that.”

"We held on to the [roof] of the tunnel,” the person continued. “We held on for about an hour. As the water receded, we slowly climbed onto the big rocks that flowed in, to take a breath. We had lost hope. We didn't think we would survive."

Powerful floods brought tragedy to Uttarakhand as recently as 2013, when some 6,000 people in the region were killed due to floods driven by a record-breaking monsoon.

Ice loss in Himalayan glaciers is rapidly accelerating; glacial melt rates have doubled since 2000, according to a 2019 study in Science Advances. Not only does this leave the region more vulnerable to these glacial avalanche floods, it also puts stress on Himalayan freshwater resources and mountain ecosystems, and poses a risk to cultural heritage and local livelihoods.