Indian scientists on Monday said that satellite and Google Earth imagery indicated there was no glacial lake in the region, raising the possibility that a water pocket inside the glacier burst as it melted, triggering the torrent of water that sent tonnes of debris rushing down the ravine. Weather data shows the Chamoli area in the Hindu Kush Himalaya had recorded less than 10 millimetres of rain since Friday.
“Water pockets are lakes inside the glaciers, which may have erupted leading to this event,” said Mohd Farooq Azam, assistant professor at the glaciology and hydrology division at the Indian Institute of Technology. “We need further analysis, weather reports and data to confirm if this indeed was the case.”
In the past two decades Himalayan glaciers have been melting twice as fast as they were at the end of the 20th century, according to a 2019 study in the Science Advances journal. The research found the rapid acceleration posed a fundamental risk to the 240 million people who live and work in the Hindu Kush region, with limited rainfall and rising temperatures melting glaciers that lead to floods, followed by drought. The area is home to more glaciers than anywhere else in the world outside the north and south poles.
”In the future, even if global warming is kept to 1.5 degrees, warming in the Hindu Kush Himalaya region will likely be at least 0.3 degrees higher,” according to the 2019 report by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development. “Such large warming could trigger a multitude of biophysical and socio-economic impacts, such as biodiversity loss, increased glacial melting, and less predictable water availability—all of which will impact livelihoods and well-being in the Hindu Kush Himalaya.”
Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Monday said “Australia stands with one of its closest friends at this very difficult time”.
But environmental experts have urged the Australian government to do more to help limit the impact of climate change at home and across the region as countries grapple with the threat to vulnerable communities.
Professor Lesley Hughes, a councillor with the Climate Council of Australia and a former federal climate commissioner, said an engineering solution to the situation in the Hindu Kush is “pretty hard and expensive, if not impossible” and that “we have to solve the root cause of the problem”.
Hughes, a pro-vice chancellor with Macquarie University, has been working with Bhutanese researchers in the region who have warned there “are a lot of downstream communities there that really are at risk”.
“A more short to medium term solution will simply be having to move a lot of those communities. But that will see a dislocation of local communities and loss of agricultural land. That clearly has a flow-on impact to get people out of harm’s way,” she said.
Professor Mark Howden, a director of the Climate Change Institute at the Australian National University, said “the broader picture is that reducing our emissions to reduce climate change is the fundamental thing that we need to do here”.
Howden, a vice-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said Australia did not have to look overseas to find a rationale for taking stronger climate action.
“We only have to look at Australia and its surrounding oceans. Whether it’s the horrendous fires, or the drought or Great Barrier Reef bleaching. The list goes on,” he said. “That is why we have international agreements. It is not just Australia who is affected but countries like India, Indonesia, and our Pacific neighbours. A global problem needs to find a global solution.”
Morrison said last week that his “preference” was to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, but the target remains locked in internal political disputes over its impact on the economy as Australia’s largest trading partners including the US, Europe, China, Japan and South Korea move towards the goal by 2050 or 2060.
”Australia is absolutely lagging behind,” said Hughes. “There was a UN report on the progress of countries meeting sustainable development goals. We are at the bottom of the pack on action, and the government just seems to be clinging on 18th century energy sources by their fingernails and being dragged along kicking and screaming.”
What in the World
Eryk Bagshaw is the China correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. Due to travel restrictions, he is currently based in Canberra.