Coronavirus Spreading in Mountain Provinces in Western China
The coronavirus first appeared in Hubei province in eastern China. It remains concentrated there, but has spread. A recent World Health Organization map shows cases in Tibet, Qinghai and Xinjiang––mountainous provinces with many glaciers. In Xinjiang, 45 cases have been confirmed, 18 in Qinghai province, and last week the first case was reported in Tibet. Though indigenous populations are adapted to high altitude, the thin air in these regions may nonetheless present a risk for those who are exposed to the disease, which affects the human respiratory system.
Read the story by Grennan Milliken on GlacierHub here.
Tracing the Reach of An Interdisciplinary Antarctic Study
A study published in 2018 in the journal Science Advances, has had far-reaching influence in the fields of oceanology and glaciology. The findings are the first to provide evidence that there is currently an ongoing positive feedback loop between the Southern Ocean and the Antarctic Ice Sheet. The research has been cited more than 20 times across a variety of fields and received significant media attention.
High Avalanche Danger After Pacific Northwest Storms
Successive pipelines of moisture-laden Pacific storm systems, known as atmospheric rivers, have produced one of the wettest Januaries for western Washington state on record. The peaks of the Cascade Range, including Mount Baker, among other glaciated stratovolcanoes which spine that US state’s coastline, received more than 20 feet of snow in the first three weeks of the month. The torrent of moisture has continued into February, leading to a “high danger” of avalanches, according to warning issued by the National Weather Service last week. The Northwest Avalanche Center posts real time avalanche advisories, which have since been reduced to moderate threat across most of the affected region.
“Glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs) pose a significant, climate change-related risk to the Mt. Everest region of Nepal. Given the existence of this imminent threat to mountain communities, understanding how people perceive the risk of GLOFs, as well as what factors influence this perception, is crucial for development of local climate change adaptation policies. A recent study, published in Natural Hazards, finds that GLOF risk perception in Nepal is linked to a variety of socioeconomic and cultural factors.”
“Amid the tropical Andes of Peru lies the Cordillera Blanca mountains, home to more tropical glaciers than anywhere else on Earth. This range provides water to some 95 million people. Rising temperatures over the last several decades, however, mean its once abundant glaciers are vanishing rapidly. That’s impacting the water supply of downstream communities, which are becoming increasingly dependent on soil moisture.
In an innovative study published in the journal Remote Sensing of Environment, researchers used drones to obtain high-resolution images of the valleys left behind as Cordillera Blanca’s glaciers recede. As the drones pass over these “proglacial valleys,” they can produce highly accurate maps of the soil moisture within the fields, rivers, wetlands, and meadows below.”
Heavy Snowfall and the Threat of Avalanches in Switzerland
“In January, officials dropped a series of controlled explosives to set off avalanches on mountains near the Moiry Glacier in southern Switzerland due to an increased amount of snowfall during the month. Communities are directed to stay inside (or preferably go into a basement) while the avalanches are triggered and close all shutters. Controlled avalanches are intended to reduce the severity of an avalanche as well as collateral debris from an avalanche, making it safer for adventurers to romp around the backcountry. The use of explosives to mitigate avalanche risk is used throughout many mountain communities, especially when areas experience above average snowfall.”
Many areas around the world have experienced extremely high snowfall this winter season. Although outdoor enthusiasts might be excited about this, with high snowfall, the risk of avalanches is much higher. This season alone there have been 11 avalanche-related deaths recorded in the western United States.
In January, officials dropped a series of controlled explosivesto set off avalanches on mountains near the Moiry Glacier in southern Switzerland due to an increased amount of snowfall during the month. According to National Geographic:“Avalanches are most common during and in the 24 hours right after a storm that dumps 12 inches (30 centimeters) or more of fresh snow. The quick pileup overloads the underlying snowpack, which causes a weak layer beneath the slab to fracture.”
Communities are directed to stay inside (or preferably go into a basement) while the avalanches are triggered and close all shutters. Controlled avalanches are intended to reduce the severity of an avalanche as well as collateral debris from an avalanche, making it safer for adventurers to romp around the backcountry. The use of explosives to mitigate avalanche risk is used throughout many mountain communities, especially when areas experience above average snowfall.
Switzerland isn’t the only place where the risk of having an avalanche is high. According to theColorado Avalanche Information Center(CAIF), a non-profit organization that aims to provide avalanche forecasts and education, Colorado has the highest amount of casualties due to avalanches in the United States, with 59 deaths from 2008-2017. Washington and Montana also had significant fatalities with 39 and 34 respectively.
Advanced technology, however, is helping researchers find new ways to prevent such severe avalanches. The Obell’x gas exploder is a spaceship-looking device that mixes oxygen and hydrogen gases. It is put into place by helicopters and can be triggered remotely, which enhances the safety and protection of avalanche workers.
Jamie Yount of the Colorado Department of Transportation explained the technology to CGTN America. “There’s a little spark plug that goes off, so you get that initiation of the explosion,” he said. “And then the shock wave comes out of the explosion chamber and triggers an avalanche in the starting zone.”
Avalanches pose risks to more than just people in the backcountry. Towns and villages located at the base of a mountain can be put in jeopardy. During an avalanche, falling snow and debris can reach speeds of 80 miles per hour (130 kilometers per hour), presenting a threat to people as well as buildings and roads.
In the case of one-road towns, avalanches can threaten tourism. Two avalanche gullies, for example, can shut down traffic intoZermatt, Switzerland, a popular tourist hub.
Backcountry activity can be a dangerous game. But lovers of the outdoors can take precautions, such being mindful of weather conditions and always have a partner. And, before heading out, make sure to know what to do in case of an emergency.
The GlacierHub News Report is a bi-monthly video news report that features some of our website’s top stories. This week, GlacierHub news is featuring recent stories on sea level rise, an ancient tunic, an avalanche that took place in Russia, and even the 100th year anniversary of a world famous mint.
This week’s news report features:
Future Sea-Level Rise and the Paris Agreement
By: Andrew Angle
Summary: The goal of Paris Agreement is to hold global temperature rise to well below two degrees Celsius. However, any rise in temperatures means sea-level rise will occur to some extent. A recent study in Nature Communications examined the implications of the Paris Agreement for future sea-level rise, finding that if the current country contributions are met in full, sea-levels would rise between 1.05 and 1.23 meters.
Reconstructing Norway’s Oldest Garment: the Tunic of Lendbreen
By: Natalie Belew
Summary: In 2011, archaeologists came across a crumpled piece of cloth in the ice of Lendbreen Glacier. When examined, it turned out to be an incredibly well-preserved 1,700-year-old tunic that became the oldest piece of clothing found in Norway. Now it has been reconstructed, and a recent study documented the process. Starting this summer, the original Lendbreen tunic will be on display alongside one its reconstructions at the Norwegian Mountain Center, while the other will be part of the permanent collection of the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo.
By: Jade Payne Summary: An avalanche struck at a ski resort on the slopes of Mount Elbrus in the Russian Caucasus on March 24. The trigger, in this case, was the accumulation of meltwater, which made the snow heavier and more prone to falling. The snow was also tinted a rust-like color. Stanislav Kutuzov, head of the Department of Glaciology at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, told GlacierHub that the “atmospheric front of March 22 to 24 brought large amounts of precipitation together with dust from the Libyan desert.” The dust, from North Africa, reached the Caucasus Mountains on March 23, one day before the avalanche. The avalanche did not cause any deaths or injuries, but it did cover at least a dozen cars that stood in its path. Read more here.
Fox’s Glacier Mints Celebrates its 100th Anniversary
By: Sabrina Ho Yen Yin
Summary: This month, Fox’s Glacier Mints, a famous candy brand from the United Kingdom, is celebrating its 100th anniversary. Making use of the similarities between glaciers and mints as refreshing and cool, we look back at the company’s clever use of the imagery of glaciers in marketing their transparent mints. The mascot for the candy is Peppy, a polar bear that is well-recognized by the brand’s lovers. Peppy has appeared in various television commercials with a fox interacting in glacier settings, British humor-style.
The rust-colored snow on the glaciated peak of Mount Elbrus in the Russian Caucasus unveiled its bright white interior when it came tumbling down the mountain toward a ski resort parking lot on March 24.
Most snowstorms in this region do not lead to avalanches. The trigger in this case was the accumulation of meltwater, which made the snow heavier and more prone to falling.
The avalanche did not cause any deaths or injuries, but it did cover at leastt a dozen cars that stood in its path. The blaring car alarms and rumble of the snow can be heard in the background of several videos taken from the parking lot. Some people on the automotive website Jalopnik questioned whether the avalanche was “evidence that Mother Nature is claiming revenge for climate change by consuming these internal combustion vehicles.”
The unusual color of the snow had made headlines in recent days, bringing international attention to the remote glacial area.
Stanislav Kutuzov, head of the Department of Glaciology at the Institute of Geography at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, told GlacierHub that the “atmospheric front of March 22 to 24 brought large amounts of precipitation together with dust from the Libyan desert.” The dust, from North Africa, reached the Caucasus Mountains on March 23, one day before the avalanche.
“A large number of particles were scavenged from the atmosphere by the precipitation which resulted in yellowish/red colored dust deposition in the region,” Kutuzov explained.
The discolored snow is not unusual for the region, which has experienced similar events over the past several years. Kutuzov added that “dust transportation from the Sahara is less frequent but results in higher dust concentrations.” The evidence of this can be seen in ice cores taken from Mt. Elbrus.
Although the timing might seem to suggest the dust instigated the avalanche event, the dust didn’t influence the avalanche directly, according to Kutuzov. Wet avalanches are typical for this time of the year in the Caucasus, he said. In the days leading up to the event, warm conditions had dominated the area, causing substantial melting and the subsequent avalanche.
The avalanche originated from a peak, which is located at an elevation of 2,300 meters and known for the Greater Azau Glacier. The ski resort is a jumping off point for people who climb the mountain on the southern slopes of Mt. Elbrus.
Similar to other glaciers in the area, Azau Glacier is retreating. The rate of retreat has increased in recent years, but it still has an extensive accumulation zone, where snowfall gathers.
The avalanche characteristics of the Azau glacier and Mt. Elbrus are not unfamiliar to the ski resort management and others nearby. “This avalanche is well-known, and happens almost every year,” assures Kutuzov. The area had previously installed snow nets to protect from avalanches such as this one, but a wet avalanche of this volume was more than this safeguard could handle.
Catch a view of the avalanche as it took place below— a reminder of the importance to take care around glaciers, even retreating ones.
On Saturday, September 9, part of the Trift glacier in the Swiss Alps broke off and crashed into a glacier below it. About 220 people of Saas-Grund, a small nearby ski town, evacuated the area as a precaution, said local police spokesman Simon Bumann. The collapsed piece measured approximately 500,000 cubic meters. Local authorities who had been surveilling the glacier found that the glacier’s tongue, a long and narrow extension of ice, was moving at about 130 centimeters per day, according to the Valais canton police.
It was during the night that the glacier’s movement began to increase. Eventually, more than two-thirds of the glacier’s front edge broke off on Sunday morning, but the debris that hit the glacier below didn’t reach the surrounding inhabited areas. Authorities feared that the broken piece could have triggered an ice avalanche, potentially impacting the town. In August, eight hikers were buried when a rockfall triggered an avalanche in Bondo, Switzerland. The avalanche in Bondo moved about four million cubic meters of mud and debris, which is the equivalent of 4,000 houses, about 500 meters, according to the regional natural hazards office.
Since the evacuation ended in Saas-Grund, residents have been able to return to their homes, and local roads around the glacier have reopened. As a precaution, the area underneath the glacier, including hiking trails, remains closed to walkers.
Thanks to Martin Funk, a glaciologist at the technology institute ETH Zurich, the surrounding villages were able to evacuate in time before any damage had been done. Funk had recommended that an expensive radar system be reinstalled just three days prior to the incident to keep an eye on the glacier. Rangers in the Saas-Grund area have monitored the Trift glacier since 2014, when they first noticed that the north face of the Weissmies mountain had broken off. But an earlier radar system that had been installed in the area was later removed due to the high price of its innovative technology. The system is said to have cost authorities around 400 francs a day, or about 417 dollars.
“In 2014, it was found that the Trift glacier in the Weissmies area moves faster than is usual for glaciers in our region. Afterwards, the behavior of the Trift glacier was closely monitored,” said Sandra Schnydrig, head of housing control at the municipality of Saas-Grund, to GlacierHub. “In the years 2015 and 2016, the glacier was permanently monitored with a radar arm and the behavior of the glacier was analyzed. At the beginning of 2017, a more simple measurement method was installed via photo analysis.”
Part of Swiss glacier breaks off after residents evacuated – Washington Post #science
There was no imminent threat until this year, when Funk saw that the glacier had begun moving again in the photos. “On Tuesday, September 5, the photo analysis showed that the Trift glacier started to move faster. Immediately afterwards, it was decided to reinstall the wheel arm measurement and to observe the behavior of the glacier more closely,” said Schnydrig. But when Funk urged authorities to reinstall the radar system, there was none available. The last radar in Switzerland had been sent to Bondo, another valley in the Swiss Alps, which recently suffered damage from an avalanche and mudslide.
Fortunately, on September 7, a radar system was sent from Germany and installed on the Trift glacier. With the proper equipment, Funk was able to predict the imminent collapse. “The degree of monitoring of this glacier is much greater than for most other glaciers in the world,” Jeff Kargel, senior associate research scientist and adjunct professor at the University of Arizona, told GlacierHub. “Technology is getting close to a point where satellite-based monitoring can detect the precursory movements of ice and result in semi-automated alerts. We are not far from being able to do that all over the world.”
The glacier will continue to be under constant evaluation. A third of the glacier’s snout remains and is unstable. Bruno Ruppen, president of the commune, was reportedly satisfied with the way the evacuation was carried out for this incident because the glacier did not cause any damage. “It could not have gone better,” he told local reporters.
The village of Saas-Grund was fortunate the recent event didn’t cause damage or casualties, but if the glacier continues to retreat at its current rate, it is assumed that more pieces of ice could break off. “The loss of ice below these remnants and the withdrawal of physical support from these pieces of the glacier means that they are very likely to fracture and slide off, especially during warm weather episodes when the ice melts, water gets in between the ice and the bed, and the whole mass becomes very slippery and weakened by fractures,” Kargel explained. “Therefore, the very common style of climate-change-driven glacier thinning, retreat, and seasonal melting is very often accompanied by this type of ice avalanche.”
Calving Event in Peruvian Lake Damages Infrastructure Designed to Reduce Flood Risk
From El Comercio: “Small ice avalanches have damaged the system of syphons in Lake Palcacocha, Ancash, Peru. Marco Zapata, the head of the Glacier Research Unit at INAIGEM, stated that on May 31, around 8 p.m., a calving event occurred at the glacier front on Mount Pucaranra, releasing ice into the lake. This event generated waves 3 meters in height, which caused 10 of the syphons to shift and which destroyed three gauges and a water level sensor.”
Find out more about Lake Palcacocha and ice avalanches here.
Asian Glaciers Fight Against Drought
From Nature: “The high mountains of Asia… have the highest concentration of glaciers globally, and 800 million people depend in part on meltwater from them. Water stress makes this region vulnerable economically and socially to drought, but glaciers are a uniquely drought-resilient source of water. Glaciers provide summer meltwater to rivers and aquifers that is sufficient for the basic needs of 136 million people… Predicted glacier loss would add considerably to drought-related water stress. Such additional water stress increases the risk of social instability, conflict and sudden, uncontrolled population migrations triggered by water scarcity, which is already associated with the large and rapidly growing populations and hydro-economies of these basins.”
Find out more about Asia’s drought-resilient glaciers here.
Sherpas Demand Summit Certificates at Protest
From The Himalayan Times: “Hundreds of sherpa climbers who met at Mt Everest base camp [in May] asked the government to immediately issue their summit certificates… Sherpa climbers who made it to the top of several peaks, including Mt Everest, have not been getting their summit certificates since last year after the government refused to approve their ascents citing a clause of the Mountaineering Expedition Regulation that bars them from obtaining such certificates… For most of the foreign climbers, summiting a mountain without sherpas’ help is almost impossible in Nepal… The new amendment to the regulation will recognize high-altitude workers as a part of the expedition to get certificates.”
Find out more about the Sherpa protest and resolution here.
A Sherpa guide has died and a foreign climber was injured following an avalanche on Mount Ama Dablam in east Nepal in late November. The avalanche was triggered by a 5.4 magnitude earthquake that occurred east of Kathmandu and nearly 11 miles west of Namche Bazar in Nepal at approximately 5:20 a.m. local time.
Lapka Thundu Sherpa, a resident of Pangboche, Solukhumbu district, and British surgeon Ciaran Hill were climbing Ama Dablam as a pair when the earthquake struck. They were reportedly only a meter apart, heading for the summit above Camp 3, over 20,669 ft., when pieces of ice dislodged during the shaking, according to Tim Mosedale, leader of the 13-member expedition.
Ama Dablam is one of the world’s most formidable and breathtaking peaks, sitting just east of Mount Everest at an elevation of 22,624 ft. Nicknamed the “Matterhorn of the Himalayas,” Ama Dablam is a prominent landmark of the Khumbu Valley for those trekking to Everest’s base camp. The mountain is well known for its hanging glacier, named the Dablam, due to its resemblance to the sacred dablam or pendant worn by Sherpa women.
Despite its aesthetic beauty, tragedy is all-too-familiar at Ama Dablam. In 2006, six climbers were killed when an avalanche impacted Camp 3 on the Southwest Ridge. In that accident, three foreigners and three Sherpa guides were killed when a serac (a pinnacle or ridge of ice on the surface of a glacier) from the Dablam glacier descended on the climbers’ tents in the early morning hours of November 13. Since then, the Dablam has become increasingly unstable, with further notable collapse in 2008.
Climbers of Ama Dablam typically summit via the Southwest Ridge, settling in at Camp 3 before the final ascent, although this route has recently been under review due to the changing nature of the glacier, which sits above and to the right of Camp 3. It is not clear whether the recent tragedy was from glacial ice breaking off, but according to Jeffrey Kargel, a geoscientist at the University of Arizona who had hiked near the mountain this past October, a treacherous-looking piece of ice was visible nearby the glacier.
“There’s some ice ready to fall,” Kargel recalls saying to his hiking companion, a trekking CEO. It was a chunk of ice right near Camp 3. Although the ice Kargel noticed might not have been the same chunk of ice involved in the deadly November ice fall, Kargel emphasized that ice falls on the Himalayan peaks are a common natural occurrence.
“My feeling is that these chunks of ice and snow are coming down all of the time. They have to come down,” said Kargel to GlacierHub. “You can see how precarious they are, perched on the side and summit of the mountain.”
This sentiment, and the feeling that the tragedy in November was natural and unavoidable, was echoed by the surviving climbers involved in the avalanche on Ama Dablam.
“I think it’s important for me to say that from my perspective it was clearly just one of those freak occurrences that could not have been predicted or avoided,” said Mr. Hill in a statement. He was ultimately saved by a long line helicopter rescue operation. “There’s no one to blame.”
Hill credited his own survival to the “flawless” response of the helicopter and ground crew. He suffered broken bones in the right hand, ribs and base of his back but is expected to recover from his injuries. Thundu Sherpa, on the other hand, suffered a fatal head injury from the falling ice, according to Mosedale, the expedition’s leader. Thundu Sherpa is survived by a wife and two children, ages 8 and 14.
“This was a tragic accident as a result of an act of nature,” added Mosedale in a statement on Facebook. “We are surrounded by an amazing panorama of massive mountains, and when the earthquake happened, there weren’t multiple avalanches and landslides. There was one incident, and our team was sadly involved.”
Typically, it is the spring melting season that presents the most dangerous time for avalanches on the mountain. Ice and snow accumulate on the peak during colder periods, but once the spring melting season hits, the wet ice begins to slip.
“In November, things would have been very hard and frozen. So you can disregard melting as a factor,” Kargel said. “Obviously it was the shaking. It is not hard to imagine that an earthquake is going to set off ice collapses. We saw that with the Gorkha Earthquake and Everest avalanches. The earthquake happened to affect ice that was poised to collapse anyway. Steep peaks and slopes have ice all of the time that is ready to come down.”
Often, glaciers of the Himalayas are relatively protected from earthquakes because the bulk of glaciers sit on valley floors, according to Kargel. The waves get absorbed and scattered before reaching the glaciers, particularly during shallow earthquakes when waves come in at acute angles relative to the surface. The peaks, on the other hand, get shaken up quite a bit during seismic events.
“If there are hanging glacier masses on the peaks, like on Aba Dablam, they can come down,” said Kargel. “Most times, this ice comes down harmlessly. It makes an avalanche, but there is nobody there.”
Otherwise, the risks are often well within the climber’s control, according to Mosedale. For instance, if it is snowing, the climbers know that avalanches will occur and the risk will be high for the 24 hours following the snow fall or longer if there is a huge dump of snow. “So we will steer clear and stay off the mountain or limit activity to safe areas,” Mosedale told GlacierHub. “But accidents can still occur that are beyond our control, as happened last November. This was an accident that couldn’t be foreseen and was completely out of the blue.”
When tragedy occurred, the team was about half way through the expedition, according to Mosedale. Thundu and Ciaran were making the first summit push. The remainder of the team were at Base Camp waiting to go to Camp 1 that day and the day after. “The client who was with Thundu was very well acclimatized, and they were going ahead of the rest of the team,” Mosedale explained to GlacierHub.
Mosedale, a 51-year old guide from Keswick, Cumbria, and a five-time Everest summitteer, made it clear that he did not want to hear negative commentary about the loss of the Sherpa guide during his expedition.
“I would prefer not to receive any comments to the effect that a climbing Sherpa has died whilst Westerners are pursuing their dreams,” said Mosedale in a statement on Facebook. “Ama Dablam is a climber’s mountain and all the people in my team are suitably well qualified by experience to be here. The climbing Sherpas are not being used and abused in the duties that they perform, they are proud of the work that they do and have worked for my Sirdar for many, many years, forming a close knit team… Five minutes either way and it would have just been a close call.”
“Sometimes the luck is just not there,” added Kargel. “This is true for scientific expeditions as well. I have had some narrow escapes from avalanches. It happens in the mountains. Sherpa guides know the chunks of ice that are unstable and make their best assessment. They know it is dangerous.”
It is clear that for some time, at least, Thundu Sherpa did attempt to avoid the dangers of the mountains, taking leave from porting to train as a watchmaker in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He returned to Nepal in 2012 to co-own Kobold Watch Company Nepal (Pvt.) Ltd., alongside fellow Sherpa guide Namgel and friend Michael Kobold.
The idea for the watch subsidiary in Nepal was first proposed by Kobold, a German-born watchmaker who was indebted to the two guides for saving his wife’s life during a summit of Mount Everest, according to Elizabeth Doerr of Forbes. Kobold hoped to give the two Sherpas safer opportunities beyond the mountain. However, when the 2015 Nepal earthquake struck, hopes were dashed as the earthquake destroyed the watch company. Following the collapse of the enterprise, Thundu Sherpa headed back to work on the mountains.
“Of slight build, endowed with a quiet voice and an unfailingly humble demeanor, Thundu was nonetheless considered a giant among his peers — the exclusive club of Nepali mountain guides,” wrote Michael Kobold in a tribute to his friend Thundu in the Nepali Times. Thundu began his journey to high altitude porter as a kitchen boy and later became a cook on expeditions, according to Kobold.
“Thundu had a very gentle persona but was incredibly strong and talented in the mountains,” added Mosedale, in conversation with Glacierhub. “He had a great attention to detail, and because he had worked so often with Westerners, he had a very good understanding of what they usually required. Some Sherpas are very strong but don’t get the social differences, whereas Thundu had that extra level of understanding which made him stand out.”
On Everest, there has been much talk of changing the primary course that climbers take up the mountain following multiple tragic mountaineering disasters and deaths of Sherpas in recent years. A similar discussion may need to take place on Ama Dablam, which has become increasingly popular, dangerous and overcrowded by climbers in the autumn months, according to notable American mountaineer Alan Arnette of alanarnette.com. Arnette is a 2011 Everest summiter and the oldest American to summit K2. When asked whether he would personally summit Ama Dablam again following an expedition in 2000, Arnette cited the risks given the recent instability of the Dablam. “No. It is too dangerous given the avalanches off the Dablam. While climbers summited in 2008, many did not given the new difficulties,” he said. “A modification was put in during the fall of 2008 which takes the route further to the right of the Dablam. This somewhat avoids the avalanche danger but now is over steep blue ice making the summit bid more difficult. As of 2012, teams continue to climb without serious incident but many choose to bypass Camp 3 and have a very, very long day from Camp 2 to the summit.”
A key to reducing chances of tragedy seems to be making sure that climbers don’t sleep or rest below unstable ice masses when an earthquake hits, but the difficulty obviously lies in predicting the earthquake. “The truth is, you really can’t predict an earthquake,” said Kargel. “As climbers, they know that avalanches happen frequently. Maybe infrequently enough that people are still willing to take the risk. The danger doesn’t mean that climbers should stop climbing or that Sherpa guides should stop their work. But obviously these mountains are very dangerous and these deaths are going to occur regularly. It is an unfortunate aspect of this pursuit by human beings to conquer peaks.”
Early on July 17, 2016, the Aru Range of Tibet experienced a massive, unexpected glacier avalanche that propelled ice and rock down into the surrounding valley. The glacier collapse of roughly 60-70 million cubic meters killed nine herders and hundreds of animals within 40 square kilometers. Controversy remains among glaciologists about what caused the avalanche in July.
According to the record, in the months prior to the avalanche, temperatures in western Tibet, west of the Aru Co Lake, had been normal, with an ordinary amount of rainfall. Equally perplexing was the fact that the part of the glacier that collapsed sat on fairly flat terrain.
There has only been one other region, Kolka/Karmadon in the Russian Caucasus, where similar events have occurred, according to a publication by the scientific commission GAPHAZ. In the article by GAPHAZ, researchers from the International Association of Cryospheric Sciences (IACS) and the International Permafrost Association (IPA) report that the last Kolka/Karmadon event occurred on September 20, 2002 and “led to a rock and ice avalanche of 120 million cubic meters in volume, killing more than 100 people.”
Whats even stranger about the Tibet avalanche is that on September 20, only two months after the first avalanche, a second massive glacier avalanche occurred just 4.8 kilometers to the south of the first collapse. According to Wanqin Guo, an associate professor at CAREERI (Cold and Arid Regions Environmental and Engineering Research) in China and an expert in avalanches, the glacier slide totaled an area of 6.4 square kilometers. The Tibetan Armed Police Force conducted the rescue for the second avalanche, but the casualty count remains unknown.
Guo talked to GlacierHub about what he believes caused the rare glacier avalanches in the region, explaining: “As the remote sensing shows, the avalanche that happened in July was mainly caused by glacier surges. The glacier had been moving slowly since 2013. It significantly accelerated moving in May 2016.” The second avalanche that happened in September was also suspected to be caused by a surge from the same glacier.
“Because the first avalanche generated a concussion wave (a shock wave or type of propagating disturbance), it stimulated the southern glacier,” Guo explained. “Though it is hard to predict avalanches, there were clues detected by scientists and warnings.” But, unfortunately, says Guo, the warnings for the glacier collapse came too late, only several hours before the second avalanche struck the region.
“This is very unusual,” added Jeffrey Kargel, a senior associate research scientist and adjunct professor at the University of Arizona, who spoke to GlacierHub about the twin avalanches. “The cause is still not known,” he said.
To date, there are multiple opposing viewpoints about the source of the avalanches among scholars, causing controversy within the scientific community. Guo, for example, believes the two massive avalanches are linked to climate change. “No matter what kind of glacier surges happen, there is always the effect of the meltwater inside of or at the bed of the glaciers,” Guo told GlacierHub. “Climate change caused the melt of the Tibet glacier, consequently causing more melt water to smooth the glacier. This meant the glacier was able to surge further at a higher speed. Without climate change, the glacier surges could happen but would not cause such massive avalanches.”
One speculation is that a geothermal anomaly is involved. But researchers studying the avalanches don’t see eye to eye. Kargel disagrees with Guo’s assessment: “If it is correct, it may explain why two neighboring glaciers experienced the same thing, but it would also make it less likely that this will happen elsewhere any time soon,” he explained to GlacierHub.
Another possibility, according to Kargel, is that seasonal meltwater (originating at the surface) worked its way down to the bed. But this is also not a very satisfactory explanation.
“Why are there just two glaciers? If this is the correct explanation, then other glaciers may experience something similar in coming summers,” said Kargel.
For now, everything is as Kargel put it to GlacierHub: “Honestly, it is a mystery.”
Each week, we highlight three stories from the forefront of glacier news.
Siachen Glacier Tragedy: An Opportunity for Peace?
From National Geographic:
“The death of over a hundred Pakistani soldiers due to an avalanche on April 7 has brought forth the forgotten frozen frontiers of Siachen in the news cycle. This is the world’s highest battlefield where more die of hypothermia than of battle wounds and yet no end is in sight for this senseless conflict. Seven years ago, I wrote an article for India’s Sanctuary Asia magazine on how to quell this conflict using ecological approaches. This was a very practical solution modeled after the Antarctic treaty, which erstwhile adversaries such as the United States and the Soviet Union signed at the height of the Cold War.”
These Artists Covered A Glacier In A Blanket To Save It
“In a summer or two, climate change might turn the highest mountain peak in Sweden into the second highest. For the past two decades, the 40-meter-thick glacier on top of Kebnekaise mountain has been shrinking, on average, a meter every year.The project is the third in a series of art projects that looks at geoengineering and the human desire to control the climate and weather. As the artists started researching ice, they read about attempts to slow the ice melt on the Rhone glacier in Switzerland by covering it with blankets.”
These Melting Glacier Candles Have a Point to Make
“These candles are made in the shape and color of glaciers so when they melt, as candles tend to do, they are making a point. And that point is: the glaciers are melting. A little on the nose? Perhaps, but you have to at least give Icelandic designer Brynjar Sigurðarson a hand for executing a concept in a very straightforward, clearly communicated way. And also for designing some nice looking candles, which are being produced by Spanish brand PCM.Mini glacier candles remind you of global warming as they melt”
In the Himalayan region, at least 10 Indian soldiers were dead due to an avalanche which engulfed their station near the Siachen Glacier. The India’s Defense Ministry made an announcement on Thursday. After the accident, Indian Army and Air Force personnel were sent to the accident spot to search for possible survivors even though temperatures on the Siachen glacier range from -25 C to -42 C.
“It is with deepest regret that we have to state that chances of finding any survivors are now very remote,” the ministry said in a statement. Earlier in January, an avalanche hit a patrol party and four soldiers were dead in this accident. On the Siachen Glacier, the border between India and Pakistan, extreme weather conditions have already killed many soldiers stationed here. “Since 1984, India has lost 869 troops due to the extreme weather events,” said S. D. Goswami, a spokesperson for the Indian Army’s Northern Command.
The most recent news indicates that the soldiers who were trapped in the avalanche all died. Public opinion in India remains strongly in favor of maintaining this base, despite the ongoing loss of life that it entails.
On 2 January 2013, large piles of rock tumbled down Mt. Evans in New Zealand. The avalanches, set off by the collapse of the mountain’s west ridge, sent rocks onto the Evans and County Glaciers and eroded snow and ice. As the rocks tumbled down, they triggered flooding in the Wanganui River.
The event was not the first time rock avalanches caused severe damage in the region; glaciers, landslides and rivers are the main cause of erosion in New Zealand’s Southern Alps. Historically, rockslides such as these occurred once every hundred years, according to a new report by authors J.M. Carey, G.T. Hancox and M.J. McSaveney, but have increased in recent decades. There were 4 per decade between 1976 and 1999 and more than 20 per decade since 1999.
Some, the report found, are caused by the region’s frequent earthquakes, but many of these rock avalanches cannot be attributed to one factor alone. Instead, factors including heavy rainfall, high slopes and fractured rock each contribute to avalanche-prone rock conditions.
Understanding the underlying causes and effects of rock avalanches can help researchers assess the likelihood of future rock avalanches and the potential damage they will cause. Already, researchers expect boulders above the Evans Glacier to collapse at any time onto the ice.
“The increase may relate to accumulating geodetic strain in the region as the change in occurrence rate correlates closely with change in accumulating seismic moment release in the New Zealand region,” wrote the authors. “It also has been linked to global climate change which is likely an additional rather than an alternative influence.”
The consequences of frequent rockslides can be severe. In the case of the most recent event on Mt. Evans, rocks travelling at 35 meters per second, or 78 miles per hour, set in motion cascading events which inundated farmland, cut off a road and severed a fibre optic cable. The floods were initially attributed to heavy rainfall, but a reconnaissance mission five and a half months later revealed that the landslide onto the Evans Glacier was the main trigger. Heavy rains exacerbated the flooding in the Wanganui River.
“The rock avalanche onto Evans Glacier ran out at high speed onto a broad flooded river flat over a kilometre long,” the authors wrote. “The rock avalanche significantly bulked up with snow and flood water and also may have bulked up with alluvium [deposit left by flood water] and possibly old glacial deposits.”