Wednesday, November 16, 2011

As glaciers melt, Bhutan faces risk of 'mountain tsunamis'

Julien Bouissou in Yahoo News via Worldcrunch, via le Monde: The Kingdom of Bhutan, tucked between India and China in the foothills of the Himalaya mountain range, is paying the price for global industrialization. To the north of the country, a chain of Himalayan glaciers is rapidly retreating — by between 20 m and 30 m per year. Experts blame climate change and predict that by 2035, the glaciers could be gone altogether.

Water flows from these melting glaciers until it breaks the natural ice dams that hold it in place. That, in turn, can result in devastating floods like the one that occurred in 1994, when a torrent of mud killed dozens of people in Bhutan and wiped out entire villages. Western scientists call this phenomenon a glacial-lake-outburst flood, or GLOF. With 24 of its 2,674 glacial lakes considered unstable, Bhutan is preparing in the coming years for even deadlier "mountain tsunamis," as the phenomenon is sometimes referred to.

Bhutan is one of the first countries in the world to make GLOF prevention a national priority. In 2005, the government received environmental-protection funds financed in part by the U.N. Development Programme. The money was earmarked in part to help Bhutan drain water from Thorthormi Glacial Lake and reinforce its natural dams. But at that high altitude, the work is difficult, dangerous and ultimately costly. (See photos of Bhutan's new king.)

..."Thanks to satellite imagery, it's possible to identify the most dangerous glaciers. But it's impossible to say when or where a catastrophe will happen," says Pradeep Mool, an engineer with the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, based in Kathmandu, Nepal...

A mountain view in Bhutan, shot by Thomas Wanhoff, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license

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