Miniature Satellites Reveal Cause of Deadly Uttarakhand Flood That Devastated Hydroelectric Dams



On Sunday morning a wall of thick, concrete-gray water rushed down India’s Dhauliganga river valley, sweeping dams, homes and folks together with it. The official dying toll has reached 38, however almost 200 folks stay lacking. Flood particles crammed a 12-by-15-foot tunnel at a hydroelectric dam undertaking, the place greater than 30 building employees stay trapped regardless of six days of rescue efforts by almost 600 responders. 

The deluge additionally worn out 5 bridges, a few of which ran 40 ft above typical river ranges. This lower off entry to 13 villages; the nationwide authorities has been bringing in help by way of helicopter and zip line as employees hasten to rebuild these very important connections.

The catastrophe laid naked a rigidity between the need for financial improvement and the pure hazards of an already dynamic mountain vary present process modifications within the warming local weather.


A lot of the preliminary information protection of the catastrophe reported it as a glacial lake outburst flood, which occurs when a glacial lake breaches a pure dam of ice or particles and quickly empties its contents. This sort of flooding is extra widespread within the heat of the summer time—however it at first appeared like an affordable clarification as a result of Himalayan glacial lakes are rising in measurement and quantity because the local weather modifications, says Saurabh Vijay, a glaciologist from the Indian Institute of Know-how, Roorkee.

This concept was shortly proved flawed, although, by a military of greater than 130 miniature “dice” satellites, launched over the previous six years by San Francisco-based non-public firm Planet Labs. “They supply a snapshot of in all places on Earth, on daily basis,” says Dan Shugar, a geomorphologist on the College of Calgary. Roughly six hours after the flood, Shugar pulled up the newest Planet Labs satellite tv for pc pictures and found a path of mud and a darkish scar on the pearl-white peaks above the flood zone—clear indicators of a landslide. 

Shugar consulted with different researchers on Twitter and shortly homed in on the landslide’s origin. He noticed that an infinite hanging glacier, roughly 15 soccer fields lengthy and 5 throughout, had damaged from the steep face of a mountain and plummeted downward, bringing among the rock face down with it. Shugar says this ice and rock avalanche crashed into the Ronti Gad, a smaller tributary that feeds into the Rishiganga after which Dhauliganga rivers. 

The landslide would have displaced some water, and a rising variety of scientists agree with this evaluation now. Nonetheless, the flood’s magnitude was far better than could be anticipated in such a case. So, the query stays: the place did all this water come from? Specialists learning the catastrophe have proposed a number of prospects. 

In a single situation, landslide particles might have briefly halted the circulation of the Rishiganga river, says Umesh Haritashya, an environmental geologist on the College of Dayton. This might have created a brief lake that ultimately broke by its particles dam and poured down the valley. 

“Put a stopper within the backside of a tub, and the bath fills up fairly fast,” Shugar says, “It doesn’t should take lengthy to create a small lake.” However he additionally explains that the friction of an avalanche creates plenty of warmth, which may have melted a lot of the ice tumbling down the mountainside. “It is totally believable that every one of that ice melted, nearly instantaneously.” The cascade might have additionally impacted ice and frozen sediments within the valley and melted these, too. 

Some nonetheless consider the occasion may very well be associated to a glacial lake outburst flood, suggesting {that a} lake hidden beneath or inside a glacier might have ruptured. No floor lakes had been seen, and a group of scientists from the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology has trekked to the landslide web site in hopes of discovering on-the-ground clues to resolve the thriller.



Sunday’s flood wreaked havoc on a number of hydroelectric dams. It destroyed one known as the Rishi Ganga Energy Venture and severely broken one other, the Tapovan Vishnugad undertaking, which was nonetheless below building on the time. The general public reported lacking had been engaged on these dams.

Hydropower tasks can draw communities nearer to rivers and thus put them in hurt’s approach, Haritashya says. He has seen sprawling cities develop round dams, growing the chance of a pure occasion changing into a tragedy. “Folks dwell near the harmful space, and there’s no correct guidelines and rules to keep away from it, or in any case they’re being [flouted] in lots of instances,” he provides. 

The Indian Supreme Court docket acknowledged the dangers of hydropower tasks within the excessive mountains after a fair larger flood struck Uttarakhand in 2013, killing hundreds of individuals and damaging 10 hydroelectric dams. The court docket indefinitely prohibited permits for brand new hydropower tasks within the area, citing the hazard the dams can put folks in. It additionally famous the dams’ potential contributions to further landslides and floods, as blasting mountainsides and clearing timber for dam infrastructure could make the panorama extra unstable. 

But the tasks continued. “The nation is energy-hungry,” Haritashya says. “These hydroelectric energy dams usually are not going to be stopped.”

Nevertheless, he provides that steps might be taken to spice up security. Along with discouraging folks from settling round dam websites, he says planners should perform extra thorough hazard assessments when selecting the place to construct hydroelectric dams, as some areas might be safer than others. 

Creating hydroelectric energy tasks in safer methods and higher areas would require shut coordination between scientists and policymakers, Haritashya notes. However he says it could be time to look to different methods of manufacturing hydropower. Native activist Dhan Singh Rana says communities within the area would strongly favor small-scale “micro-hydro” tasks over larger dams, as these would fulfill the vitality wants of mountain communities with out as a lot of an environmental or cultural influence.


The Himalayas make up a rising and ever-changing mountain vary that has seen innumerable floods and landslides over its lifespan. “This stuff occur, and so they have occurred at all times,” says Fabian Walter, a glaciologist on the Swiss Federal Institute of Know-how in Zurich. “However we consider that local weather change will make [them] worse.” And the consequences of a warming local weather are making it even tougher to evaluate what hazards lurk in amidst the icy peaks.

“The well being of Himalayan glaciers is deteriorating,” says Vijay, the native glaciologist. Himalayan glaciers are melting twice as quick within the 21st century as they had been from 1975 to 2000; this has disrupted glaciers that had been as soon as sturdily frozen in place. With that in thoughts, Vijay thinks researchers ought to monitor hanging glaciers (ones that cling to steep mountain faces) extra intently. By reviewing outdated satellite tv for pc pictures, he realized that the hanging glacier answerable for Sunday’s landslide had developed a big crack in 2017.

Dave Petley, a landslide researcher on the College of Sheffield, says that “we’re not placing the identical degree of rigor into assessing the landslide hazards as we’re within the seismic hazards.” Doing so will grow to be essential, Petley provides, as massive mountain landslides have grow to be extra widespread within the Himalayas as a result of thawing permafrost and extra intense storms.

Sadly, Sunday’s devastating flood in all probability gained’t be the final for the area. “We’re more likely to see extra of such excessive occasions,” says Ravi Chopra, director of the Folks’s Science Institute in Uttarakhand. “The earlier we act on the warnings of the environmentalists, the higher off we’re more likely to be.”


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