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Climate Crisis Likely Behind Deadly Glacier Collapse in India

Climate Crisis Likely Behind Deadly Glacier Collapse in India
State Disaster Response Fund personnel prepare for deployment in Uttarakhand state on February 7, 2021 after a glacier broke off in the Himalayas, causing flash floods along the Dhauli Ganga river. -/ AFP / Getty Images

A piece of Himalayan glacier in the Indian state of Uttarakhand broke off and fell into a river Sunday, triggering an avalanche and floods that have killed at least 20 people so far, while nearly 200 remain missing.

The incident comes as Himalayan glaciers are melting twice as fast as they were in 2000 largely because of the climate crisis, according to a study published in 2019.

"This looks very much like a climate change event as the glaciers are melting due to global warming," Dr. Anjal Prakash, a lead researcher with the United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), told CBS News.

The collapse occurred after 10 p.m. local time when a piece of the Nanda Devi glacier broke off, sending flood waters cascading down the Dhauli Ganga river valley, CNN reported. The flood destroyed the Rishiganga Power project, a small 13.2-megawatt dam, and severely damaged a 520-megawatt dam under construction, trapping workers in tunnels. The flooding also forced villagers to evacuate downstream.

"It came very fast, there was no time to alert anyone," Sanjay Singh Rana, who lives in the riverside Raini village, told Reuters. "I felt that even we would be swept away."


Most of the dead and missing worked at the two hydroelectric projects. About 21 people are missing from the Rishiganga dam, and another 150 people are missing from the larger project, according to CBS News. Workers are trapped inside two tunnels at the latter, CNN reported. Rescuers freed 12 people from the smaller tunnel on Sunday, but are still trying to extricate 35 people believed to be trapped inside the larger tunnel.

"Some people inside the tunnel are probably alive or half alive, we are trying to rescue them," Ashok Kumar, Uttarakhand state's director general of police told CBS News.

Rescue workers were able to clear the mouth of the tunnel on Monday, according to CNN.


Meanwhile, 20 bodies have been recovered from the region, Kumar told CNN. The flooding also knocked over trees and buildings and cut off around 2,500 people in 13 villages. However, rescue workers had reached all of the impacted villages by Monday afternoon, Kumar told CNN. Authorities also said on Monday that the threat of new flooding had ended, according to CBS.

The incident raises questions about developing a region that is vulnerable to climate change. The IPPC's Special Report on Oceans and Cryosphere warned that glacier retreat could increase the risk of landslides, floods and cascading events in regions where these disasters were previously unheard of, the Times of India reported.

Despite this, there has been a push to build more dams in the region, which environmentalists in India have warned against.

"This disaster again calls for a serious scrutiny of the hydropower dams building spree in this eco-sensitive region," Ranjan Panda, a Combat Climate Change Network volunteer, told Reuters. "The government should no longer ignore warnings from experts and stop building hydropower projects and extensive highway networks in this fragile ecosystem."

At the same time, IPCC's Prakash called for more efforts to monitor climate change impacts in the region.

"[T]his event actually shows how vulnerable we could be," he told the Times of India.

The disaster comes about eight years after the "Himalayan tsunami" of 2013, when heavy monsoon rains triggered floods and landslides that killed nearly 6,000 people in Uttarakhand, Reuters reported. However, Sunday's incident did not occur during the rainy season, and the weather report for the region showed no record of rain or snow, Dr. Mohd Farooq Azam, assistant professor of glaciology and hydrology at IIT Indore, told the Times of India.

"There is no doubt that global warming has resulted in the warming of the region," Azam said.

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