Earlier this week, on October 4, an avalanche hit a team of mountaineers from the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering (NIM), Uttarkashi, as they engaged in ‘height gain’ and tackled navigation in high mountains. Among them were 34 trainees and seven instructors, who were returning from Mount Draupadi ka Danda-2 (5,670m; 18,602 feet) when the avalanche struck.
This brought back memories of my Basic Mountaineering Course with NIM in the late 1990s, when I undertook training in the same terrain. As part of the course, I remember going for ‘height gain’, crossing crevasses, tackling ice-walls and learning about glaciers. Mount Draupadi ka Danda-2 loomed over the base camp and was a stunner during nights, all 18,000 feet of it aglow, framed by countless stars and the Milky Way Galaxy streaking gloriously beside it.
What happened with the NIM team is the stuff of nightmares for any mountaineer, however well-prepared and doughty they might be. However, this event is one in a sequence of many in the Himalayas in recent times, pointing towards an increasing trend of avalanches, cloud bursts and general fragility.
On October 1, an avalanche struck the Kedarnath temple area. It was the second avalanche there in two weeks. Meanwhile, a huge avalanche hit the Manaslu (the world’s eighth highest mountain) base camp on October 2. Last year, an avalanche had struck a hydro-power project near Tapovan in Uttarakhand; it damaged a part of the under-construction hydropower project Tapovan Vishnugad.
As highlighted by these incidents, avalanches have become more frequent and increasingly-common in the higher reaches of the Himalayas, a massive 2,500-kilometre (1,553-mile) arc-shaped stretch of lofty mountains straddling Pakistan, China, India, Nepal, and Bhutan, which are home to the largest concentration of glaciers outside of the poles.
So, what is behind the recent increase in avalanches?
A report from 2018 at Mongabay titled ‘Warmer Winters Are Increasing Risk Of Avalanches In The Himalayas’ mentions that winter temperatures in the northwestern Himalayas have risen by 0.65 degrees Celsius on average over a period of 25 years, a team of Indian researchers found, which is higher than the global average rise of 0.44 degrees Celsius. During this 25-year study period, total winter precipitation also increased, but it was marked by an increase in rainfall and a decrease in snowfall, the study found. Rising temperatures have led to an increase in the frequency of avalanches in the Himalayas since 1970, the researchers found.
Among other factors are ‘development’ activities, which do not take into account the fragile terrain of the Himalayas and carry out digging, drilling, tunneling and blasting work in mountainous regions without any heed to its impact.
According to Dr SP Sati, a leading geologist who heads the Department of Basic and Social Sciences in Uttarakhand University, in response to a warning by him on avalanches increasing in and around Kedarnath, as part of an interview given to News Click, “It has been observed that there has been a 0.16 increase in temperature per decade globally. But this rise of temperature doubles as we go to the higher elevations of the Himalayas — the 0.16 temperature increase becomes 0.32. The temperature has already gone up 1.25 degrees from 1850 but we are set to see a temperature increase of 1.25 degree in the next decade itself. The biggest consequence of this will be felt in the Himalayas where glacial melting will increase. What that means is that the 100 dams or so that have been built, or are presently being built in the Himalayas, will face severe challenges. These dams have been designed to receive a certain level of water. When water flow increases, the siltation will increase, which in turn will reduce the age of the dam. Further, heavy rainfall events will result in increasing landslides. Retreating glaciers will see an increase in moraines which are para glacial sediment and are not static. These moraines get mobilised due to heavy rainfall events. That is why we are warning against doing heavy construction in these regions because the construction is taking place on unstable foundations.”
Answering another question, this one about there being a huge spurt in construction activity in and around Kedarnath, with JCBs being brought in reportedly by Chetak helicopters, Dr Sati said, “Heavy infrastructure construction is taking place in and around Kedarnath with no understanding of the sensitivity of the terrain. The government has come up with a Kedarnath Master Plan and a Badrinath Master Plan and these are being ‘redeveloped’ with concrete structures including hotels and resorts. Hundreds of crores are being spent on these master plans. But the 2013 accident was not something unexpected in these terrains. We saw that in 1882, the Mandakini river changed its course. This can happen to any of the rivers in these altitudes. The floating population in these towns has also increased and there is a huge influx of tourists. No importance is being given to scientific facts. When we point out the dangers of executing these mammoth infrastructural projects in such areas, we are called anti-development and urban Naxals. But globally, scientists across the world have expressed concern at these developments.”
It is not that sane voices have not brought to the fore the contributing causes of avalanches. Efforts are also on to predict/forecast such incidents, with the Avalanche Monitoring Radar, the first of its kind in India, being installed jointly by the Indian Army and the Defence Geoinformatics and Research Establishment in north Sikkim in September this year. Besides being used for the detection of avalanches, this radar can also be employed to detect landslides.
While the means are available, the will appears to be lacking. I say this because despite all the evidence pointing towards the high-scale disaster risk from unchecked ‘development’, turning a blind eye to scientific studies and general apathy for the fate of our beloved Himalayas, we have begun a steep descent into increased avalanche and avalanche-related incidents, the only way to prevent which is to formulate and implement an urgent plan of action and a strong political/administrative will.
WHAT IS AN AVALANCHE?
An avalanche (also known as a snow slide) is a fast-moving snow flow down a slope, such as a hill or a mountain. Avalanches may occur spontaneously, as a result of variables such as excessive precipitation or a decreasing snowpack, or as a result of external sources such as people, animals, and earthquakes. Large avalanches mostly made up of moving snow and air, have the power to catch and transport ice, rocks, and trees. They can be caused by a number of factors, such as heavy snowfall, increased human activities, wind direction, steep slopes, warm temperatures, layers of snow and earthquakes.