Town Evacuates After Part of Swiss Glacier Collapses

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.

The village of Saas Grund in the Swiss Alps (Source: Wandervogel/Creative Commons).

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.

A view of the Trift glacier that partially collapsed in September (Source: SWIswissinfo.ch/YouTube).

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.”

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.”

A map of Saas-Grund in Switzerland (Source: Cities of the World/YouTube).

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.”

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Avalanche on Ama Dablam Claims Life of Sherpa Guide

View of Ama Dablam taken from base camp (Source: François Bianco/Creative Commons).
View of Ama Dablam taken from base camp (Source: François Bianco/Creative Commons).

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.

Thundu Sherpa (Source: Facebook of Everest Expedition).
Thundu Sherpa (Source: Everest Expedition/Facebook).

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.

Securing tents on the high camp of Ama Dablam (Source: Satori Expeditions/Instagram).
Securing tents on the high camp of Ama Dablam, December 2016 (Source: Satori Expeditions/Instagram).

“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.

View from near Imja Lake moraine, October 26, 2016 (Source: Jeff Kargel).
View from near Lhotse Glacier moraine, October 26, 2016 (Source: Jeff Kargel).

“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.

View from near Chhukhung, October 21, 2016 (Source: Jeff Kargel).
View from near Chhukhung, October 21, 2016 (Source: Jeff Kargel).

“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.

View of Ama Dablam peak from Ama Dablam (Source: Neal Beidleman/Instagram).
View of Ama Dablam peak from Ama Dablam, January 2017 (Source: Neal Beidleman/Instagram).

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.”

Ama Dablam (Source: alanarnette.com).
Ama Dablam (Source: alanarnette.com).

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.”

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An Earthquake, a Landslide and Two Glaciers in New Zealand

Glaciers can play an important role in landscape dynamics, interacting with other factors to shape landscape development. Two days after a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck North Canterbury, New Zealand, a landslide occurred between nearby Fox and Franz Josef glaciers. This landslide could offer insight into the role of glaciers in seismically active areas, particularly concerning the ways in which glaciers interact with earthquake-related instabilities in the landscape.

The landslide occurred at Omoeroa at around 2 p.m. (GMT +12 hours) on November 16th, closing off a section of State Highway 6 along the west coast of South Island for about three hours until debris were cleared.

Earthquakes and landslides are common in New Zealand due to the country’s location on the Pacific Ring of Fire, the area around the Pacific Ocean that is very seismically active. It is so named because of the prevalence of volcanic activity within the ring, which is made up by the major tectonic plate boundaries.

Types of faults based on the movement of rocks (Source: USGS/Wikimedia Commons)
Types of faults based on the movement of rocks (Source: USGS/Creative Commons).

Earthquakes, which occur when Earth’s crust breaks along faults (fractures in the crust), send tremors outwards from the point of breakage. This particular earthquake was caused by oblique-reverse faulting (faulting that had both strike-slip and reverse components) near the boundary of the Pacific and Australian tectonic plates. Landslides, like the one that occurred between the two glaciers, are often triggered by other natural disasters, such as earthquakes or floods. In this case, the earthquake and its aftershocks triggered up to 100,000 landslides, causing local damage and blocking major roads and railway routes.

In conversation with GlacierHub, Umesh Haritashya, an associate professor in environmental geology at the University of Dayton, explained that the region in which the landslide occurred is prone to landslides even without any seismic activity. This is due to the topography of New Zealand’s Southern Alps. As such, it would not be surprising if the earthquake, landslide and glaciers are connected, he said.

While the two glaciers are found on the west coast of South Island, the earthquake occurred on the east coast of the island. The distance between the two suggests that the intensity of the tremors experienced in the area around the landslide may have been quite low. Nonetheless, a link is possible, according to Jeff Kargel, a geoscientist at the University of Arizona. “The timing of this big landslide is certainly suggestive of a direct link to the earthquake,” Kargel told GlacierHub.

The terminus of Fox glacier in 2013, showing the surrounding mountain topography (Source: Umesh Haritashya)
The terminus of Fox glacier in 2013, showing the surrounding mountain topography (Source: Umesh Haritashya).

“For both direct and circumstantial reasons, earthquakes, glaciers and landslides are closely associated,” Kargel explained. “There is the direct influence of glaciers that produce lots of unstable rock debris over thousands of years, and there are indirect influences, where glaciers erode the mountain topography and produce very steep slopes. These factors create conditions under which seismic activity can easily set off landslides.”

In addition, Kargel noted that glaciers occur where uplift rates have been high and the terrain is elevated to begin with. This means that either circumstantially or indirectly, glaciers and landslides can occur nearby.

Kargel further stated that large earthquakes tend to create instabilities in the landscape that are later exploited by natural processes, making landslides more frequent in the aftermath of earthquakes. “The spike in landslide activity can last for several years,” he said.

The terminus of Franz Josef Glacier, as seen in 2006 (Source: Sarah Toh)
The terminus of Franz Josef Glacier, as seen in 2006 (Source: Sarah Toh).

In addition to seismic activity, other causes like heavy rain after the earthquake could have contributed to the occurrence of the landslide. New Zealand’s MetService reported that the areas of the glaciers had received considerable rain, with 80-120mm falling the night after the earthquake.

“The West Coast receives an unusually high amount of rain, so slopes are already reconditioned and any seismic activity can trigger major landslides,” Haritashya explained.

The links between the earthquake, glaciers and landslides will become clearer as scientists examine similar events more fully. For now, landslides like these offer an insight into the complex interactions between glaciers, topography and seismic activity. Earthquakes can cause large amounts of disruption to people’s lives, so advancements in this field of science could prove valuable to communities as they seek to address the challenges posed by natural disasters.

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