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HomeScienceUttarakhand disaster likely caused by landslide, not glacial outburst, satellite images reveal

Uttarakhand disaster likely caused by landslide, not glacial outburst, satellite images reveal

Scientists studying satellite imagery from before & after the disaster say a chunk of glacier appears to have crashed down a mountain, triggering a landslide & subsequent floods.

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Coimbatore: International geologists and glaciologists studying satellite imagery say the cause of the Chamoli flooding disaster in Uttarakhand appears to be a landslide and not a glacial outburst as widely believed.

The first identification was done by Dr Dan Shugar of University of Calgary, who specialises in high altitude glacial and geologic environments. Shugar used satellite images from Planet Labs, captured before and after the disaster, to deduce that a landslide triggered the catastrophic flash floods along the Alaknanda and Dhauliganga rivers, as also evidenced by a trail of dust visible in the satellite imagery.

Earlier reports stated that the flooding was caused by a glacial lake outburst flood (GLOF), which occurs when a natural lake is formed from a glacial ice melt and the lake is breached. However, available satellite images seemingly do not show the presence of a glacial lake before the flooding event.

Instead, glaciologists and geologists identified a steeply hanging bit of a glacier which likely developed a crack and caused a landslide, triggering an avalanche and the subsequent flooding.

Images from Copernicus’s Sentinel 2 satellite also showed the formation or opening of a crack in the Nanda Devi glacier that is believed to have triggered the landslide.


What likely happened

In all likelihood, a steep, hanging portion of the Nanda Devi glacier broke off at Trishuli, in what is called a ‘rockslope detachment’. This potentially caused nearly 2,00,000 square metres of ice to drop 2 kilometres vertically, causing a landslide, impacting the valley floor and shattering instantly. This debris, rock, and ice then flowed downslope in the form of an avalanche, identified by the dust trail in the satellite imagery.

This avalanche flowed onto the glacier itself. Such intense flows of rock can cause tremendous heat generation, melting ice and causing transient, slushy lakes and/or water flows.

Additionally, there was likely more ice-cored moraine, or ice covered by sediment, as well as stagnant glacial ice downstream, as identified by Matt Westoby, a physical geography lecturer specialising in glacial analysis in Northumbria University.

These large volumes of ice, spanning nearly 3.5 km, would have further melted due to the heat generated by the landslide and avalanche, leading to the huge volumes of water that flooded the rivers.


This theory was confirmed by landslide experts too. According to Dave Petley of University of Sheffield, the event is similar to the 2012 Seti river flooding in Nepal, which was also triggered by a rockslope failure.

Saurabh Vijay, assistant professor at IIT-Roorkee who studies glaciers, identified from satellite images large amounts of freshly fallen snow over the last week that likely contributed to both the avalanche and the volume of water.

While landslide-triggered flows could cause enough heat to form temporary, transient dams of water that get quickly washed away in a flooding event, the event is not a ‘glacial outburst’.

What is GLOF?

A GLOF event is where a naturally formed lake of glacial meltwater is breached, causing a catastrophic release of large volumes of water downstream.

Glaciers on mountain tops and the sides of mountains accumulate ice from snowfall. This ice melts in a process called ablation, adding water to downstream water bodies and rivers. The process is continuous and is a part of the Earth’s natural water cycle.

As a glacier retreats, i.e., reduces in size because of melting, it leaves sediments in the melted freshwater in the form of clay and sand as well as rocks, boulders, and gravel. These deposits often create natural dams called moraines that contain meltwater within.

These natural dams or glacial lakes can overflow or be punctured/breached, leading to flooding downstream.

Breaching of moraines can be triggered by avalanches, earthquakes or a natural collapse of moraines due to excessive pressure from water. Also contributing to GLOFs are anthropogenic (human-induced) activities such as deforestation and pollution, which change local climate. Pollution exacerbates the potential for disasters through the release of black soot particles, which can settle on ice, absorbing more heat and accelerating melting.

Fragmentation of glacial ice can also trigger a breach in terminal moraines or dam boundaries, either through direct impact or by displacement waves, which compromise the stability of the dam. This is what was originally suspected to have occurred in Chamoli.

It is as yet unclear what triggered the original landslide that led to this week’s disaster. Newer satellite imagery, survey data, and further investigations are expected to reveal more information over the next few days.

Also read: 14 bodies recovered, 15 rescued in Uttarakhand following glacier burst


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  1. Excellent deleberation of events resulted in Disaster. I have served in these areas in early 1970 while in Army. 2 Times scaled NandaDevi & Once Trshuli. Really vertical hanging ice collection , exposed to small avalanches number of times. Resons given are truthful. Actually Dams typer infrastructure should be avoided as frequent blasts weekens vertically hanging ice collections. We all are aware that Himalyas are gradually moving north side due to tectonic plates movement results in rising of mountain peaks. As per check 1+ meter rise annually is evidenced. Its constant movement which unstabilise the ice collection & result in avalanch added with blasting adds to major event. Even in 1970 we have been raising these points . In winter & cloudy wather avalanch taking place is primarily due to techtonic activity.

  2. Where exactly is Trishuli? There is a “Tirsuli” peak much further north of Nanda Devi, which seems too far away to have affected Rishiganga. There is a “Trishul” peak adjacent (West) to Nanda Devi. The glacier off Trishul peak is Trishul glacier which feeds into the Rishiganga. Please check and correct the article if needed.

  3. Good work done by thePrint science reporter. But still questions… Rockslope avalanche fell directly on to the Rishiganga valley or the avalanche fell directly on the Nandadevi glacier? In the satellite images where exactly does it show the source of the dust trail by the avalanche?

  4. Scientific opinions divided even amongst Indian scientists. Some believe it to be landslide. Another opinion (IISc) is that it is underground glacial lake was the cause of the flash floods.
    We need more data and evidence to show how a Nandadevi glacial outburst cannot be ruled out.

  5. Quick research by Print helped in pointing out early that it was a landslide and not a glacial lake outburst. Rest of mainstream media was still reporting it as due to glacial lakes or glacial melt.

  6. Avalanche disaster at Joshimath in Chamoli district on 7 February 2021.
    In this context , it may be apt to share with readers the predictive alert of this Vedic astrology writer related to Joshimath avalanche tragedy on 7 February in article as follows :-
    “ Major worrisome potential of concerns during 10 January to 13 February in soon coming year 2021 for vulnerable world and India as well , calling for more care and appropriate strategy”.
    The said predictive article carrying the related alert was published at on 26 November 2020
    Subsequently , this writer’s another article as follows , reiterating the related predictive alert also, was published at on 29 January 2021 :-
    “Predictive alerts for more care and appropriate strategy in vulnerable countries of world during 9 February , particularly from mid-February to 10 March in 2021”.
    The factual details referred to here read with the disaster in Joshimath on 7 February 2021 suggest that predictive alert sounded on record by this writer on 26 November 2020 , reiterated on 29 January 2021 , calling for more care and appropriate strategy near about 9 February 2021 also in relation to looming danger of snow-caused storms , avalanches and disaster in hill State of northern India where Hydropower houses -projects are located and our security forces Jawans are also stationed , was precisely accurate and meaningful.

  7. Don’t know why media mentions Nanda Devi glacier. The coordinates for Nanda Devi are different from what is being mentioned here.

    Is the landslide off the Trishul glacier or Ronti glacier? The coordinates closely match the Ronti peak which overlooks Rishiganga valley.

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