Roundup: Cycling, Drones and Living Entities

Roundup: Cycling, Drones and Two Glaciers


Female Cyclist’s Pioneering Ride On Biafo Glacier

From The Nation: “Pakistani cyclist Samar Khan is the first women in the world to ride cycle on the 4,500 meter high Biafo Glacier in the Karakoram Mountains of Gilgit Baltistan. With the passion of cycling, she raised her voice for social injustice and created awareness in the community to change the perception of people related to adventure sports and to bring the ‘Cycling Revolution’ to Pakistan like other countries to lessen the accidents, pollution and to bring healthy lifestyle.”

Read an interview with Khan here.

Samar Khan, cyclist (Source: YouTube).



Monitoring Glacier Dynamics Using Drones

From The Cryosphere: “The glaciers of the Cordillera Blanca Peru are rapidly retreating as a result of climate change, altering timing, quantity and quality of water available to downstream users. Furthermore, increases in the number and size of proglacial lakes associated with these melting glaciers is increasing potential exposure to glacier lake outburst floods (GLOFs)… Most satellite data are too coarse for studying small mountain glaciers and are often affected by cloud cover, while traditional airborne photogrammetry and LiDAR are costly. Recent developments have made Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) a viable and potentially transformative method for studying glacier change at high spatial resolution, on demand and at relatively low cost. Using a custom designed hexacopter built for high altitude (4000 – 6000 masl) operation we completed repeat aerial surveys (2014 and 2015) of the debris covered Llaca glacier tongue and proglacial lake system.”
Learn more about using drones to study glacier dynamics here.
Dieser Hexacopter wird von Herrn Oberbichler gesteuert...
A version of a Hexacopter drone (Source: Gottfried Maurer/Flickr).


Two Glaciers Given Legal Status

From Times of India: “Ten days after it declared the rivers Ganga and Yamuna as ‘living entities’, Uttarakhand high court (HC) on Friday declared the glaciers from where the two rivers originate, Gangotri and Yamunotri respectively, as legal entities as well. The order delivered by Justices Rajiv Sharma and Alok Singh, who had also passed the order on the two rivers on March 20, said that the glaciers will have “the status of a legal person, with all corresponding rights, duties and liabilities of a living person.” This, the court said, was being done “in order to preserve and conserve them.”
Read more about the two glaciers here.
Gangotri Glacier, a new “living entity” (Source: Prashant Menon/Flickr).

Mapping Landslides in the Himalayas

Uttarakhand Himalaya in northwest India is a rural, mountain region that shares borders with Nepal and Tibet. Often referred to as “The Land of Gods” for its physical grandeur, Uttarakhand is surrounded by some of the world’s highest peaks and glaciers. However, such beauty comes at a price. The Uttarakhand area is prone to natural and glacier-related disasters, often exacerbated by the region’s topography and climate patterns. Landslides, triggered by heavy rainfall and events called glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs), expose the high mountain communities to infrastructure, life and community losses. A recent article by Naresh Rana Poonam et al. in Geomorphology measured and mapped susceptibility in Uttarakhand to help create a template that can be applied to locations facing similar climate-related landslides.

Village of Jhakani, Pauri, Uttarakhand (Source: A Frequent Traveller/Creative Commons).
Village of Jhakani, Pauri, Uttarakhand (Source: A Frequent Traveller/Creative Commons).

To conduct their research, Poonam et al. relied on Landslide Susceptibility Zonation (LSZ) mapping in order to deepen understanding and response in Uttarakhand to local hazards in a manner that can also be replicated elsewhere. Landslide Susceptibility Zonation (LSZ) is a type of mapping system that organizes different variables like geological, geomorphic, meteorological and man-made factors as high-risk based on the chances of slope failure. A slope failure occurs whenever a mountain slope collapses due to gravitational stresses, often triggering a destructive local landslide. Mapping these vulnerabilities is critical to understanding the dynamics and potential force of future landslides in the Himalayas and elsewhere.

Many of Uttarakhand’s peaks have year-round snowpack with glaciers and glacial lakes that can be disturbed by shifting rainfall patterns and changes in the onset of monsoon season. These disruptions can cause a destabilization deep within the ground, causing the initial movement needed to produce a landslide. Additionally, Uttarakhand’s proximity to the Indian Plate, a large tectonic plate where movement occurs along the boundaries, makes it especially vulnerable to frequent earthquakes. According to the United States Geological Survey, the last earthquake in Uttarakhand occurred on December 1, 2016, with a 5.2 magnitude. The energy released during an earthquake of that magnitude has the potential to trigger multiple, large-scale landslides.

Floodwaters of the River Alaknanda in the Chamoli district in Uttarakhand on June 18, 2013 (Source: Indian Army/Creative Commons).
Floodwaters of the River Alaknanda in the Chamoli district in Uttarakhand on June 18, 2013 (Source: Indian Army/Creative Commons).

Given the high-altitude location of Uttarakhand, earthquakes can also cause glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs), a type of flood that occurs when the terminal moraine dam located at the maximum edge of a glacier collapses, releasing a large volume of water. These events can be especially destructive to rural mountain communities that are hard to access, making recovery efforts challenging and untimely. Additionally, these villages are often settled in areas where landslides naturally funnel. Preparing mountain communities to understand the risks they face is critical to minimizing damage associated with natural disasters. As a recent article in GlacierHub points out, “Educating and adapting ensures resilience to risks associated not only with glacial outburst flood risks, but also other risks associated with changing climates.” In an attempt to lower the risk of a landslide disaster triggered by a glacial lake outburst flood or rainfall event, Poonam et al. looked at ways to increase accuracy of floodplain mapping. The hope is to help increase the resiliency of communities by encouraging smart expansion with higher predictability of slide prone areas.

Flash floods in Uttarakhand
Damage caused by flash floods in Uttarakhand (Source: European Commission DG ECHO).

LSZ mapping is created using the Weights of Evidence method, a statistical procedure for calculating risk assessment using training data, like an established inventory of previous landslides. This statistical approach allows for information retrieved from a geographic information system (GIS) and remotely sensed data to be integrated regionally. LSV maps can also be derived from a knowledge-driven method that involves more human interpretation; however, this method is based on expert evaluations of a location. According to the article, the statistical approach is used more frequently because it lacks the subjective nature of the knowledge-driven method. When a location is evaluated by an expert, risks and interpretation of potential risks will differ based on the expert, leaving the risk of human error. The statistical approach provides consistency and confidence of regional LSZ maps because they can be interpreted using a common baseline.

The researchers hope that more precise mapping will help communities prepare for disasters such as the one that occurred in Uttarakhand in 2013. In a normal year, the monsoon rains soak Uttarakhand during the second week of July; however, in 2013, those rains arrived in June, a month earlier than expected, catching Uttarakhand off guard. During the spring months, water levels are high with snowmelt from rivers and glacial lakes. Combining monsoon rains with snowmelt during the spring can lead to devastating floods and landslides. As a result, 7,000 people and hundreds of animals lost their lives in a rainfall event on June 15th that took place in the Mandakini Valley, east of Nanda Devi National Park, according to BBC News. Adding to the devastating losses, the Manadkini Valley is also home to the Kedarnath Temple, where Hindu pilgrims travel between the months of May to October. The high volumes of people paired with the early-activated monsoon resulted in increased losses.

Flash floods in Uttarakhand (Source: European Commission DG ECHO)
Damage caused by flash floods in Uttarakhand (Source: European Commission DG ECHO).

After experiencing the devastation of the landslides resulting from the June 2013 monsoon, many people thought the risk of staying in Uttarakhand was too high, so they relocated to the plains. The outmigration left 3,600 villages mostly deserted, as reported by Poonam et al. Outmigration due to climate-related disasters places mountain communities at additional risk for economic stagnation that may lead to increased forced migration to other areas.

Educating communities in both a scientific and social capacity on the risks associated with the natural interaction of weather and a geography allows for increased awareness among local populations which can help lead to better preparedness for future events. According to a recent GlacierHub article, the state of Jammu and Kashmir, located nearby, held a workshop to communicate risk to small mountain communities to help them understand and raise awareness into the unique risks associated with their location. Like with Uttarakhand, it’s not a question of if these events will happen, but when. Providing communities with detailed maps highlighting certain areas that are more prone to landslides and GLOFs will not eliminate the risk, but it may lower it. Combining LSV mapping with education programs on how to use the mapping information will provide small mountain villages with the future tools to build more sustainable and resilient communities. Since LSV mapping efforts are still being integrated, success may not be immediate. However, LSV mapping shows tremendous potential to enable people to continue residing in the world’s richly historic and picturesque locations.

First global analysis of the societal impacts of glacier floods

Two British researchers recently published the first global inventory and damage assessment of the societal consequences incurred by glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs). They revealed that glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs) have been declining in frequency since the mid-1990s, with the majority released by ice dam failures.

Glacial hazard specialists Jonathan Carrivick and Fiona Tweed spent 18 months scouring the records of over 1,348 GLOFs, determining that such floods have definitely claimed over 12,400 lives since the medieval period. Their work stems from a need to strengthen data on glacier lakes.

Glacier lake outburst at AP-Olsen Ice Cap, Greenland (Source: Gernot Weyss)
Glacier lake outburst at AP-Olsen Ice Cap, Greenland (Source: Gernot Weyss)

“There was very very little quantitative data out there on the importance of glacier lakes, from a societal point of view,” Carrivick said in an interview with GlacierHub. He explained that this recent paper was a natural progression from his earlier research, which focused on modelling hydrological, geological and geomorphological processes.

Based purely on frequency, Carrivick and Tweed found that north-west North America (mainly Alaska), the European Alps (mainly Switzerland), and Iceland are the “most susceptible regions” to GLOFs. However, the impacts of these events have have often been minimal, as they occur in sparsely populated, remote regions, and in places where resilience is high.

The greatest damage has been inflicted upon Nepal and Switzerland — respectively accounting for 22 percent and 17 percent of the global total damage reported. When Carrivick applied the normalized ‘Damage Index,’ which considered GDPs of the affected country (used as a crude proxy for ability to mitigate, manage and recover), he found that Iceland, Bhutan and Nepal have suffered the “greatest national-level economic consequences of glacier flood impacts.”

Historically, Asian and South American GLOFs have been the deadliest, taking the lives of 6,300 and 5,745 individuals since 1560 respectively. However, these figures are dominated by only two catastrophes, which accounted for 88 percent of the 12,445 fatalities confirmed by Carrivick and Tweed. The first, in December 1941, saw over 5,000 Peruvians perish in Huaraz, when a landslide cascaded into the glacial Lake Palcacocha. The second event, swept away more than 6,000 Indians from across Uttarakhand in June 2013, as torrential rains triggered outburst floods and landslides.

The city of Huaraz, devastated by the 1941 GLOF (Source: The Mountain Institute)
The city of Huaraz, devastated by the 1941 GLOF (Source: The Mountain Institute)

The study’s authors adopted a method for normalizing damage assessments new to GLOF hazard analysis, striving to fairly compare the cataclysmic impacts of outburst flooding on communities around the world.

They found that there has actually been a decline in number of floods since the 1990s, which was surprising to the researchers, given that a 2013 study which they had conducted found that the number and size of glacial lakes has increased, as the world’s ice masses have wasted. Carrivick stated that he was “very interested in the fact that, apparently, so few glaciers have lakes that have burst [0.7% of the total], on a global scale.” He added, “it beggars belief that there isn’t a higher percentage of those lakes that have burst at some point.”

In their paper, the pair suggest that the “apparent decline” could be attributed to improved successful stabilisation efforts, natural resilience, greater awareness and preparedness in threatened communities, or declined number of GLOFs from ice-dammed lakes.

An additional factor may be that some glacial floods are missing from the English-language record. Carrivick revealed, “We have a contact in China who says that there’s a lot of unpublished floods…that individual has not been able to send us the data yet.” Government restrictions on the flow of potentially sensitive information has contributed to this partial release of data.

Carrivick also noted that new data is continually being published, in many cases in foreign languages. He referenced a recent issue of the Geological Journal, which released “a whole heap of extra data,” translated from Russian.

Academics have been actively studying GLOFs since at least 1939. But it was not until 1996 that the first relatively comprehensive, global-scale inventory was compiled and published by Joseph Walder and John Costa, who recognized the “flood hazards posed by glacier-dammed lakes.” Carrivick and Tweed found the failure of this type of dam was the leading cause of GLOFs, accounting for 70 percent of events around the world.

Mark Carey studies Palcacocha Lake, Peru (Source: SSRC)
Mark Carey studying Palcacocha Lake, Peru, site of a major GLOF event (Source: SSRC)

Earlier this year, GlacierHub wrote about an alternate database, which has been compiled under the oversight of the International Programme on Landslides The project has been led by Adam Emmer, a PhD working with Vít Vilímek at Charles University in Prague. Three years ago, Emmer, Vilímek, and their team sought to compile a comprehensive global database, identifying over 500 events since the mid-1800s.

The work of Emmer and Vilímek’s team, like Walder, Costa and many others, predominantly focused on physical processes, such as the mechanisms which set off GLOFs, flood routes and distance, volume, as well as the quantity of debris carried by the floodwaters. Documentation of the socioeconomic impacts has remained been relatively less developed in glacial hazards research.

Noting this shortcoming, Carrivick and Tweed decided their study should focus specifically on the societal consequences of GLOFs. They included the number of deaths, injuries, evacuees, displaced, structural damage, financial loss, and called for the inclusion of less tangible social impacts in future studies, including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). They also acknowledged potentially positive effects of floods, such as increased power generation at hydropower facilities.

They developed a ‘Damage Index,’ which allowed them to conduct standardised assessments of the impacts each GLOF had on downstream communities. This was by no means easy or straightforward. As Carrivick noted, “A footbridge going down in Bhutan has a very different impact to a footbridge going down in Alaska. One is absolutely vital to the functioning of society, and the other one probably receives ten tourists in a year.” They sought a methodology for normalising the heterogeneous impacts of GLOFs around the world, ultimately choosing the ‘Natural Disaster Impact Assessment’ (NDIA), developed by Olga Petrucci of the Italian National Research Council.

Regional and global GLOF figures, according to Carrivick & Tweed, 2016)
Regional and global GLOF figures, according to Carrivick & Tweed, 2016

The authors decided that the damage investigation should be conducted by Carrivick alone, who assigned a “relative score” to each event, as they sought to “provide a quantitative comparison.” Carrivick spent six months trawling through the records of 332 GLOFs (24 percent of the total) for which the societal impacts were known.

Carrivick emphasised that he and Tweed were “indebted” to the teams that have established the various comparable databases, which provided them with a “running start.” However, in reviewing their data they found that “whilst several natural hazards databases purport long-term records, they are in reality biased towards more recent events.” 

The researchers note the reality that GLOF-related research and mitigation activity at potentially hazardous sites is costly. Lack of funds has plagued efforts around the world. Both proactive (i.e. glacial lake research, continuous monitoring, mitigation works), and retroactive (i.e. repairs, reparations) initiatives are often low on national to-do lists, especially where resources are limited.

Stranded pilgrims cross a river swollen by GLOF waters in Uttarakhand, India (Source: AP)
Stranded pilgrims cross a river swollen by GLOF waters in Uttarakhand, India (Source: AP)

Carrivick and Tweed are hoping that their latest paper will establish an important foundation, upon which affected nations and colleagues can build. “It’s not wagging the finger at all, and saying ‘You can’t cope’ or ‘You can’t manage,’ but it’s identifying where we might strategically invest scientific work, and invest international collaborative efforts,” said Carrivick.

Glacier Hazards Linked to Prolonged PTSD in Kids

In June 2013, several days of torrential rains bombarded India’s northern state of Uttarakhand causing devastating glacier lake outburst floods (GLOFs), river flooding, and landslides. This event is considered to be the country’s worst natural disaster since the 2004 tsunami. Packed with Hindu pilgrimage sites, temples, and tourists, Uttarakhand saw entire settlements washed away. Roads were heavily damaged, stranding over 70,000 people and causing food shortages. Local rivers were flooded with dead bodies for more than a week, contaminating water supplies for the survivors.

Based on post-disaster studies, researchers from St. John’s Medical College in Bengaluru, India recently published findings indicating that the Uttarakhand flooding may have provoked sustained levels of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in adolescents in the region. The study, which was conducted three months after the disaster, found a 32 percent prevalence of PTSD and a wide-range of stress levels amongst the youth of one the hardest hit districts, Uttarkashi.

Torrential rain caused unimaginable flooding in Uttarakhand. Many traditional sites and statues were ruined. (Photo: Flickr)
Torrential rain caused unimaginable flooding in Uttarakhand. Many traditional sites and statues were ruined. (Photo: Flickr)

In order to secure these findings, the research team obtained consent from 268 adolescents at a high school in Uttarkashi. They assessed the mental health of the students by administering the Trauma Screening Questionnaire, an PTSD assessment recognized in the U.S., the U.K., and elsewhere. Another structured questionnaire was used to gather demographic information. The average age of children who participated in the study was 14.8, with slightly more male respondents than female.

Because of a lack of mental health care infrastructure in Uttarkashi, researchers were not able to prove the glacier-related event directly caused the high rates of PTSD amongst the students in this region. However, a similar study of 411 high school students, conducted prior to 2012 in Pune, India found a lower rate of PTSD (8.9 percent for girls, 10.5 for boys). These students had not suffered from a recent natural disaster related event. A meta-study of 72 peer-reviewed articles of US children and adolescents exposed to trauma found an overall rate of PTSD of nearly 16 percent..

A study of 533 tsunami victims in South India found a much higher rate of PTSD, roughly 70.7 percent for acute PTSD and almost 11 percent for delayed onset PTSD. Although there are many factors that may be able to explain the difference in rates, the increased prevalence of PTSD in the Uttarakashi youth certainly signals a link between glacial hazards and PTSD in children.

The loss of a stable lifestyle is a well-known risk factor for PTSD because of an increased feeling of vulnerability to harm. In Uttarakhand, many adolescents experienced this first-hand when their houses were washed away in the floods. (Photo: EU Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection/Flickr)
The loss of a stable lifestyle is a well-known risk factor for PTSD because of an increased feeling of vulnerability to harm. In Uttarakhand, many adolescents experienced this first-hand when their houses were washed away in the floods. (Photo: EU Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection/Flickr)

The researchers from St. John’s Medical College note that past research has been able to establish the relationship in adult subjects between natural disasters and PTSD, “the most prevalent psychological disorder after disaster.” Thus, they claim there is a need for greater recognition of post-disaster stress disorder assessment and for interventions among adolescent victims in developing countries.

“The majority of disaster studies have focused on adults, although adolescents seem to be more vulnerable to psychological impairment after disaster which manifests in a variety of complex psychological and behavioral manifestations,” wrote the authors of the study.

The exact cause of the 2013 Uttarakashi district flooding is contested; however, the unyielding rains contributed to heavy melting of the Chorabari Glacier, 3,800 meters above sea level, and this was a significant catalyst in the event. During the week of June 20, melting at Chorabari, due to above average rainfall, led to the formation of a temporary glacial lake. Further torrential rains caused this lake to swell and overflow, inducing flash flooding and disastrous landslides and mudslides. “Eyewitnesses describe how a sudden gush of water engulfed the centuries-old Kardarnath temple, and washed away everything in its vicinity in a matter of minutes,” according to Down To Earth Magazine.

Glacier-related PTSD risk is not unique to the Gangotri glacier region. There is also evidence and historical precedence to connect these environmental and psychological factors in the Hindu Kush region, the Cordillera Blanca area of Peru, and other high mountain ranges with large glacier dimensions because of their increased risk of glacial hazards. Further, as researchers begin to examine the link between climate change related disasters and the well being of communities, they are finding the increase in disasters will likely instigate greater rates of stress, anxiety, depression, and physical illness along with PTSD in exposed populations. The recognition of the impacts of disasters on mental health is an important complement to earlier work, which has focused almost exclusively on property damage and mortality.