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May 27th, 2015

Scientists headed to Nepal for post-quake assessments of potentially dangerous glacial lakes

Today, a team of high altitude scientists will deploy in Nepal to begin the process of assessing post-earthquake impacts on the country’s potentially dangerous glacial lakes.

The M 7.8 earthquake of 25 May, 2015 leveled parts of Kathmandu and caused more than 8,000 deaths throughout the country. Scientists began to worry that the seismic activity could also lead to increased glacial outburst floods (GLOF), which can occur with devastating downstream impacts if the fragile end moraines holding back millions of cubic meters of water are breached by surge waves, collapse, or earthquakes.  Twenty-four (24) GLOFs are known to have occurred in Nepal, mostly since 1960.

Between 1 June and 31 July, Dr. Alton C. Byers, an INSTAAR affiliate at the University of Colorado Boulder, and Dr. Daene McKinney, Professor of Civil Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, will begin the task of climbing to and assessing earthquake impacts on Nepal’s 21 potentially dangerous glacial lakes, beginning with the three of greatest concern to the Government of Nepal because of their size and the abundance of downstream villages and infrastructure.

The HiMAP team en route to Imja Lake, a glacial lake in Nepal, last spring. Left to right: Elizabeth Byers, John Harlin, Caryn McKinney, Daene McKinney, Alton Byers, David Rounce, and Tukten Sherpa. Daene, Elizabeth, and Alton are returning to Imja Lake for a post-earthquake assessment of lake integrity, accompanied by Daniel Byers (not shown) as photographer.

Byers and McKinney are co-managers of the High Mountains Adaptation Partnership (HiMAP), a USAID-funded program that since 2009 has developed rapid reconnaissance methods for assessing and reducing the risk of dangerous glacial lakes in Nepal and Peru.  Results of the applied research are then integrated into community consultations that lead to Local Adaptation Plans of Action (LAPA) for building resilience to climate change.  At the same time, they will survey the other damage caused by the earthquake to villages located in the remote mountain regions where the lakes are found, many of which may not receive assistance for weeks or months to come.  While in the field, the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) and the University of Arizona will feed the team with the latest satellite imagery on a daily basis, flagging any new areas of concern not always visible from the ground.  Byers and McKinney have personally visited and studied nearly all of the 21 glacial lakes on the danger list during the past six years, and expect to be working on the project throughout the remainder of 2015 and into 2016.  Specifically, they will look for changes in lake levels, lateral and terminal moraines, increases in seepage at the base of the moraines, overhanging ice, discharge, and other indicators of possible instability.

“It’s our deepest wish that somehow the lakes are still stable, and that for the time being downstream populations can at least have one less thing to worry about,” says Byers, who has more than four decades of experience working in applied research, conservation, and climate change projects in Nepal.  “But just like earthquakes, it’s impossible to predict when a GLOF will occur.  And the earthquake may just provide the wakeup call needed for scientists, donors, and governments to take the growing danger of GLOFs seriously, and to really focus on finding ways of reducing their risks to downstream populations, infrastructure, agricultural land, and the growing numbers of tourists vital to local economies.”

Byers and McKinney believe that a combination of regular monitoring by remote sensing, on-the-ground field checks, flood modeling, and regular communication with local communities may hold the answer.

“Modeling can give local villages the information they need to make informed decisions about GLOF risk and the actions they take—move, don’t build on the flood plain, or live with the threat,” says McKinney.  “But you can’t just throw people a model and expect them to use it.  Communities need guidance, support, and facilitation to make use of science and scientific tools such as modeling, using processes like the LAPAs that we used in the Everest region, and Cordillera Blanca region of Peru.”

Byers thinks that new methods of reducing the risk of glacial lakes will need to be developed because of their remoteness.  “Nepal will never be able to replicate the Peru experience of managing glacial lakes,” he says, who along with McKinney has brought Peruvian engineers with decades of experience to Nepal to share their knowledge of glacial lake management.  “When Peru began lowering their 35 dangerous glacial lakes in the Cordillera Blanca in the 1950s, the first thing they did was build a road to each lake, which was easy to do because of the existing network of roads and short distances to the lakes.  Many of the dangerous lakes in Nepal involve an 11 day walk in just to reach them, meaning that the costs of lowering them could be prohibitive.”

Byers and McKinney will work closely with Nepal’s Department of Hydrology and Meteorology (DHM), ICIMOD, Nepal Army, and USAID/Nepal in the course of their work.  The June-July fieldwork will be supported by USAID’s Climate Change Office in Washington, D.C.; the two scientists are volunteering their time.  They have so far succeeded in raising additional funds from the American Society of Civil Engineers, University of Texas Engineering, Xylem Inc., US 21 Inc., and National Geographic Society, which are needed to purchase modems, satphones, data charges, and field gear.  They will continue to seek support for the fall and spring 2016 phases from a range of other donors.

“We’re in this for the long haul,” said Byers.  “The people of the Himalayas have never had to deal with the joint phenomena of disappearing glaciers and development of new, potentially dangerous glacial lakes, and we’re learning as we go.”