30 glaciers in Karakoram range in Ladakh, J&K have potential to burst: Scientists
In the last few decades, 146 outburst floods have taken place in the range due to obstruction of rivers passing through the valleys by these advancing glaciers, said scientists of Dehradun’s Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology
Scientists from Dehradun’s Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology (WIHG) have identified 30 glaciers in the Karakoram range in Ladakh and Jammu & Kashmir, where the intensity of glacial lake outbursts is likely to increase. In the last few decades, 146 outburst floods have taken place in the range due to obstruction of rivers passing through the valleys by these advancing glaciers, they said.
WIHG is in the process of identifying the glacial lakes that can burst and creating a mechanism for their regular monitoring.
Kalachand Sain, the institute’s director, said the scientists have identified many advancing glaciers, which form ice dams due to obstruction of passing rivers in these valleys.
Ice dams are created when ice from upper parts of glaciers fall and block passing rivers, giving rise to glacial lakes, which lead to glacial lake outburst floods.
Ice dammed lakes are different from moraine dam glacial lakes (one of them led to burst during the Kedarnath flash flood in 2013). Moraine dam glacial lakes are formed due to the retreating of glaciers, which leave behind soil and rocks and lead to an increase in capacity of a lake, making it prone to bursting.
“These ice dam lakes pose a threat of bursting anytime because as melted water and debris from glaciers get accumulated in mountain depressions or valleys, then the lakes will have more water than their capacity. This, in turn, can break walls of lakes and when they suddenly get released downstream, they can create flash-floods,” said Sain.
The Karakoram mountain range is around 500 km long. It has 18 mountains over 7,500 metres high and four over 8,000 metres, including the second-highest peak in the world-- K2 (8,611 m). The range starts in the Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan in the west and passes through Gilgit-Baltistan and Ladakh including the Aksai Chin area.
Karakoram range is the most heavily glaciated part of the world outside the polar regions. The 74-km long strategically important Siachen Glacier between India and Pakistan and the second-largest glacier in the world’s non-polar region is also located in the Karakoram range.
WIHG’s ongoing study named ‘Ice-dammed Lake Outburst Floods in Karakoram’ aims to form an updated inventory of ice dams and related glacial lake outburst floods, combining historical sources and remote sensing data.
Scientists from Waterloo’s Wilfrid Laurier University, and Chandigarh’s Snow and Avalanche Study Establishment are also involved in the research.
Rakesh Bhambri, a WIHG scientist working on the project, said 146 glacial lake outburst floods have taken place in the Karakoram region in 30 advancing glaciers. He said the scientists first started working in 2013 for this project.
“...we need to study more about these areas and find out if there is a connection with climate change or not. And if there is, how it might affect the surroundings in the future,” said Bhambri.
He added the inner part of Ladakh’s Shyok Valley, which has been in the news over ongoing India-China border tensions, can get flooded. “We do not have many settlements in these areas and only security personnel stay there. If these places get flooded, then border areas can get affected.”
Sameer Tiwari, another senior scientist from WIHG working on the project, said if the lakes outburst, then major damage can occur in the Indus river basin, mainly covering Shyok and Nubra Valleys of Ladakh.
“We are continuously studying the satellite data to understand where all rivers are being blocked due to surging glaciers leading to the formation of lakes that can outburst. We can only collect data and form an inventory so that this information can be used by the local administration to prevent a disaster,” said Tiwari.
He said in 2019, a lake outburst was reported from Shispare Glacier in the Gilgit-Baltistan area. Shispare Glacier is one of the 30 identified glaciers.
After studying the glaciers of the Karakoram region, scientists say that one of the outcomes has been an urgent need to identify which glaciers are of concern, and initiate frequent, if not continuous monitoring of their activity.
Sain said as they study more and more glaciers and glacial lakes, they will be able to know what measures to take to prevent a disaster. “During the 2013 Kedarnath flash floods, mass destruction took place due to a cloudburst along with debris accumulation and a similar situation can arise here too. From our studies, we will be able to collect data regarding weather conditions, the number of lakes formed, whether they have reached their capacity. An early warning system can be generated to predict a lake outburst.”