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When mountains collapse…

When mountains collapse…

Jane Qiu, a grantee of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, took to quake-stricken Nepal last month — venturing into landslide-riddled terrains and shadowing scientists studying what makes slopes more susceptible to failure after an earthquake. The journey proved to be more perilous than she had expected.

What would it be like to lose all your family overnight? And how would you cope? It’s with these questions in mind that I trekked with a heavy heart along the Langtang Valley, a popular touristic destination in northern Nepal.

Exactly a year ago this week, this remote Himalayan watershed witnessed the single most horrific canastrophy of the Gorkha Earthquake: a massive avalanche engulfed Langtang and nearby villages, leaving nearly 400 people killed or missing.

The quake shook up ice and snow at five locations along a 3-kilometre ridge between 6,800-7,200 metres above sea level. They went into motion and swept huge amounts of loose debris and fractured rocks along their way — before crashing several kilometres down to the valley floor.

The avalanche generated 15 million tonnes of ice and rock, and sent powerful wind blasting down the valley, flattening houses and forests. Wind speeds exceeded 322 kilometres per hour and the impact released half as much energy as the Hiroshima nuclear bomb. Nothing in its path could have survived.

A pile of commemorating stones on the debris that buried Langtang and nearby villages last April, killing and leaving missing nearly 400 people. (Credit: Jane Qiu)

A pile of commemorating stones on the debris that buried Langtang and nearby villages last April, killing and leaving missing nearly 400 people. (Credit: Jane Qiu)

Where the villages used to stand is now a gigantic pile of debris, up to 60 metres deep. It’s effectively a mass grave where people pile up stones and put up prayer flags to mark where their loved ones used to live.

It’s hard to come to terms with the scale of the devastation. Everybody in the valley has lost somebody to the monstrous landslide. About two dozen children from 16 families, who were in schools in Kathmandu during the earthquake, lost all their family in the matter of a few minutes.

It’s a sombre reminder of how dangerous it can be in the Himalayas — where people live so close to ice and where population growth and the search for livelihood often push them to build in hazardous areas.

The only building in the village of Langtang that survived the avalanche. The rocky enclave protected it from the crushing debris and the powerful blast. (Credit: Jane Qiu)

The only building in the village of Langtang that survived the avalanche. The rocky enclave protected it from the crushing debris and the powerful blast. (Credit: Jane Qiu)

Under-appreciated danger

The Langtang tragedy also reminds us how deadly landslides can be during an earthquake — a danger that is often under-appreciated. While earthquakes and landslides are like conjoined twins that go hand in hand, most of the resources go into building houses that can sustain strong shaking, and far too little into mitigating landslide risks.

In both the 2005 magnitude-7.6 Kashmir Earthquake in Pakistan and the 2008 magnitude-7.8 Wenchuan Earthquake in China — which killed approximately 26,000 and 90,000 people, respectively — a third of the fatalities were caused by landslides. While it’s certainly important to build earthquake-proof houses, it’s equally important to build them at safe locations.

In addition to the killer avalanche in Langtang, the Gorkha Earthquake unleashed over 10,000 landslides across Nepal, which blocked rivers and damaged houses, roads, and hydropower stations. Many valleys are totally shattered — with landslide scars running down from the ridge top like gigantic waterfalls, and numerous small failures marring the landscape like fireworks shooting across the sky.

Driving along the Aniko Highway that connects Nepal with Tibet, it’s not difficult to see that many houses had survived the shaking only to be crushed by debris flows and rock falls. The border remains closed because of continuing landslide hazards. The highway, which used to have some of the worst traffic jams in Nepal, is totally deserted.

A building in Kodari — which used to be a bustling trade town at the Nepal-Tibet border — was unscathed during the earthquake only to be damaged by large rock falls. (Credit: Jane Qiu)

A building in Kodari — which used to be a bustling trade town at the Nepal-Tibet border — was unscathed during the earthquake only to be damaged by large rock falls. (Credit: Jane Qiu)

Enduring legacy

A major concern is that Nepal will suffer from more severe landslides than usual for a long time. During the last monsoon, the landslide rate was about ten times greater than an average year. And my trek along the Langtang Valley was accompanied by frequent sound tracks of falling rocks and shifting slopes. A number of times, I had to run from boulders crushing down onto the trail — a clear sign that there are lots of instability in the system.

The instability could go on for years or even decades and will be exacerbated by rainfall and aftershocks. This enduring legacy is often not fully taken on board in quake recovery — with devastating consequences. Eight years after the Wenchuan Earthquake, for instance, settlements built after the disaster continue to be inflicted by a heightened level of landslides, which cause floods and destroy infrastructures.

This points to the importance of rigorous risk assessment before reconstruction and close monitoring afterwards. There is also an urgent need to better understand what makes mountainsides more susceptible to landslides after an earthquake and how they recover over time.

To achieve that end, several research groups went into landslide-ridden areas in Gorkha’s immediate aftermath. They wanted to capture what happened to the landscape immediately after the quake, so they could track the changes in the coming years.

Early warning

Last month, I joined one such team — consisting of Christoff Andermann, Kristen Cook and Camilla Brunello, of the German Research Centre for Geosciences (GFZ) in Potsdam, Germany, and their Nepalese coordinator Bhairab Sitaula — on a field trip along the Arniko Highway.

That was their fourth trip in Nepal since last June when they began to map the landslides and installed a dozen broadband seismometers, along with weather stations and river-flow sensors, over 50 square kilometres of badly shaken terrains.

The team often attracted a few curious onlookers when they worked away, but nothing provoked more excitement than the drone, says Cook. The crowd, especially kids, were thrilled to see the little robotic device buzzing around like a gigantic mosquito, she adds. A camera and sensors onboard can help them to locate the landslides and monitor debris movement, especially after rainstorms.

 

Christoff Andermann, Camilla Brunello and Bhairab Sitaula performing maintenance on a broadband seismometer and weather station near the village of Chaku on the Arniko Highway (Credit: Jane Qiu)

Christoff Andermann, Camilla Brunello and Bhairab Sitaula performing maintenance on a broadband seismometer and weather station near the village of Chaku on the Arniko Highway (Credit: Jane Qiu)

Another exciting aspect of their research is the use of seismology to probe geomorphic processes over a large area. Landslides are effectively earthquakes that occur near the surface, and produce signals that can be picked up by seismometers.

The team, led by Niels Hovius of GFZ, can detect precursory seismic signals days before a landslide happens. They also study ground properties by measuring how traffic vibrations travel through the ground.

Because seismic waves travel faster when subsurface materials are wet, the researchers are able to trace how rainfall penetrates into and through the ground. This determines the pressure of water in spaces between soil and rock particles, a key factor controlling slope stability.

Such studies will one day allow researchers to determine the rainfall thresholds that could precipitate a landslide and capture deformation precursors days in advance. This offers a real prospect of an effective early warning system, which is urgently needed in a country that is increasingly plagued by landslides.

By Jane Qiu, freelance science writer in Beijing

Further reading

Qiu, J. Listening for landslides, Nature 532, 428-431 (2016).

Jane Qiu, an awardee of the 2012 EGU Science Journalism Fellowship, is a Chinese freelance science writer in Beijing. She is passionate about the origin and evolution of the Tibetan Plateau and surrounding mountain ranges—a vast elevated land also known as the Third Pole because it boasts the largest stock of ice outside the Arctic and the Antarctic. 

Travelling extensively across the Third Pole, up to 6,700 meters above sea level (http://science.sciencemag.org/content/351/6272/436), Qiu has covered wide-ranging topics—from the meltdown of Himalayan glaciers, grassland degradation, the origin of woolly rhino, to the people of Tibet. Her work regularly appears in publications such as Nature, Science, The Economist, Scientific American, and SciDev.Net.

Qiu’s journey to the Third Pole began with Marine Biological Laboratory’s Logan Science Journalism Fellowship that allowed her to travel to the Arctic and the Antarctic and report climate change first hand. These experiences sowed the seeds for her later fascination with geoscience and environmental studies, and afforded her the insight to draw parallels between these geographically diverse regions.

A sky-high view on pollution in the Himalayas: the science

 Jane Qiu shares her experience of shadowing atmospheric scientists some 5000 metres above sea level after being awarded the EGU’s science journalism fellowship. To find out how she got there, see her last post, A sky-high view on pollution in the Himalayas: the journey.

Lab with a view

After six days of strenuous hike, the Pyramid was finally in sight. At the foot of the majestic Khumbu Glacier, the main building, completed in 1990, consists of a three-storey stone building with a pyramid-shaped, solar-panel roof. It’s home to a data-processing centre, several laboratories and warehouses, as well as a lodge — with bedrooms, showers (yes, there is hot water), kitchen and a large common room — that can host 20 people at a time.

The Pyramid is finally in sight after six days of strenuous hike. (Credit: Jane Qiu)

The Pyramid is finally in sight after six days of strenuous hike. (Credit: Jane Qiu)

At dinner time, a gourmet Italian meal — prosciutto, mozzarella salad, penne arrabiata, and a bottle of Merlot — was presented to us by the skillful Nepalese chef. Having had dhaba (a popular Nepalese dish) for almost every meal for the last few days, this was extremely enticing. But the altitude effect was gaining momentum, and my stomach ejected everything that had gone in.

It transpired that my blood oxygen level hovered just above 60% (the value is normally between 96%-99% for healthy individuals). And Gian Pietro Verza, the station manager and an experienced mountaineer, decided that I ought to lie down and inhale oxygen for a couple of hours — with a Pyramid staff sitting next to me and measuring my oxygen levels every 10 minutes.

A major facility for studying climate and pollutants in the Himalayas. (Credit: Jane Qiu)

A major facility for studying climate and pollutants in the Himalayas. (Credit: Jane Qiu)

The observatory, which was set up by the Ev-K2-CNR Committee and the Nepal Academy of Science and Technology, has allowed continuous measurements of pollutants since 2006. (Credit: Jane Qiu)

The observatory, which was set up by the Ev-K2-CNR Committee and the Nepal Academy of Science and Technology, has allowed continuous measurements of pollutants since 2006. (Credit: Jane Qiu)

I was much better the next morning, but every single movement was a big ordeal. Having put on all the layers of clothing and tying the boot laces, I felt I could do with a little lying down. But the calling of the glorious Himalayan Sun was irresistible. So I went with the researchers to the observatory on top of an adjacent hill. It consists of a small hut and a whole suit of instruments, perching next to rows of solar panels near the terminus of the magnificent Khumbu Glacier.

Solar panels against the backdrop of the Khumbu Glacier. (Credit: Jane Qiu)

Solar panels against the backdrop of the Khumbu Glacier. (Credit: Jane Qiu)

In addition to meteorology and solar radiation, the instruments measure various properties of aerosols, such as size, concentration, total mass and optical properties (whether they absorb or reflect light). They also assess the level of mercury as well as a number of gases, including carbon dioxide, water vapour and ozone. A few devices on the roof pass air samples through filters to be analyzed in the laboratory for their chemical composition.

Angela Marinoni adjusting a sun photometer for measuring aerosols. (Credit: Jane Qiu)

Angela Marinoni adjusting a sun photometer for measuring aerosols. (Credit: Jane Qiu)

The coolest gadget is an automated apparatus called a sun photometer. It has its ‘head’ down most of the time, but ‘wakes up’ every 15 minutes to point at the Sun. The embedded optical system and filtering devices allow it to measure how transparent the atmospheric column is. Scientists use this information to deduce the quantity of aerosols and gases present.

All the measurements are transmitted to the data-processing centre in the main building. The satellite connection allows remote control of the instruments and real-time data access — from any part of the world. The Italian team comes every spring and autumn to calibrate instruments and install new sensors. For the rest of the year, the Nepalese staff, including Kaji Bista, Pema Sherpa and Laxman Adhikari, have a crucial role in keeping things running.

In addition to the Pyramid, there are another 8 weather stations along the Khumbu Valley — from 2660 metres above sea level near Lukla to 8,000 metres at the South Col (the ridge between Everest and Lhotse, the fourth highest mountain in the world). This has provided a rare glimpse of atmospheric circulation and pollutant transport in the Himalayas.

Peak station

The Nepalese staff, such as Pema Sherpa (right) and Lakpa Sonam, have a crucial role in keeping the equipment functional all year round. (Credit: Jane Qiu)

The Nepalese staff, such as Pema Sherpa (right) and Lakpa Sonam, have a crucial role in keeping the equipment functional all year round. (Credit: Jane Qiu)

A few days later, I set off to see an automated weather station on Kala Patthar (meaning black rock in Nepali). It’s a big dark bump at 5,600 metres above sea level on the south ridge of the Pumori (7161 metres), which is referred to by climbers as “Everest’s daughter”.

We stopped for lunch at the village Gorakshep — the last outpost before the Everest Base Camp — and heard the sad news that somebody had died from altitude sickness on Kala Patthar the day before. I learned a few days later that it was a German gentleman in his sixties who we happened to have met and shared a lodge with at the village Tengboche on our way up.

 

From Gorakshep, it’s a two-hour hike — with a lot of breaks as I huffed and puffed my lungs out. We crossed an ancient lake bed, navigated through a series of steep switchbacks, and had some serious scrambling before reaching the wind-swept summit ridge. The weather-station towers stood atop the boulders, among the prayer flags fluttering in the wind. A myriad of weather parameters, such as temperature, humidity, pressure, wind speed and direction, are transmitted to the Pyramid in real time.

The weather station at Kala Patthar. (Credit: Jane Qiu)

The weather station at Kala Patthar. (Credit: Jane Qiu)

With a magnificent view of the Everest (8,848 metres) and the Lhotse (8,516 metres), which are connected to each other via the South Col, the site also boasts the highest webcam in the world — the Mount Everest Webcam. It was installed by Italian and Nepalese researchers as part of an Ev-K2-CNR-supported project to understand climate change in the Himalayas.

The spectacular view of the Everest and the Lhotse from Kala Patthar. (Credit: Jane Qiu)

The spectacular view of the Everest and the Lhotse from Kala Patthar. (Credit: Jane Qiu)

Looking over to the South Col, I tried to imagine what it would be like to install a weather station there at an altitude of 8,000 metres — certainly the highest in the world. In 2008, an expedition team consisting of three Italian climbers and five Nepalese sherpas, including Pema Sherpa, went up to the ridge with all the heavy scientific equipment.

Pemba Wangchu traversing a ladder in the Khumbu Icefall, while Pema Sherpa had crossed safely. They were part of an expedition team to install a weather station at the South Col at 8,000 metres above sea level. (Credit: SHARE Everest Expedition)

Pemba Wangchu traversing a ladder in the Khumbu Icefall, while Pema Sherpa had crossed safely. They were part of an expedition team to install a weather station at the South Col at 8,000 metres above sea level. (Credit: SHARE Everest Expedition)

The team drilled deep into the ground to fix the masts, so they would be stable in harsh conditions for as long as possible. The electronic instruments also have to sustain extreme conditions, such as frigid temperatures, strong winds, low pressure, and ice formation.

Their efforts have paid off. One striking finding is the records of above-zero temperatures at the South Col. This coincided with massive ice falls, presumably because the warm temperatures caused snowmelt and triggered avalanches. This is particularly interesting in light of the recent surprising findings that Tibetan glaciers are losing ice at altitudes as high as 6,000 metres.

Himalayan cleanup

All these pursuits are, of course, not purely academic. Pollution in the Himalayas could have far-flung impact. Once reaching the high mountains, pollutants — especially dust, black carbon, and organic compounds — could increase glacier melt, pollute streams, poison ecosystems, and even change monsoon patterns, threatening the livelihood of millions of people.

With the aerosol observatory at the Pyramid and the 9 weather stations along the Khumbu Valley, the researchers now have the data to pinpoint pollution sources and transport mechanisms and determine how pollutants might react with each other along the way to form new chemicals. This, together with a new modelling initiative, will be able to inform emission-reduction policies in the Himalayas.

Further reading

Qiu, J. Pollutants capture the high ground in the Himalayas. Science, 339, 1030-1031 (2013).

By Jane Qiu, Science Writer

A sky-high view on pollution in the Himalayas: the journey

After being awarded the EGU’s science journalism fellowship, Jane Qiu took to the Himalayas to shadow scientists studying air pollution at the Pyramid Observatory some 5000 metres above sea level. The journey to work is by no means an easy one…

For Angela Marinoni and Paolo Bonasoni, climate scientists at the Institute of Atmospheric Sciences and Climate in Bologna, Italy, and Maxime Hervo, a Ph.D student at Blaise Pascal University at Clermont-Ferrand, France, getting to work is no mean feat – and can be life threatening. I’m not talking about their European laboratories, but the Pyramid Observatory 5079 metres above sea level on the south side of Mount Everest.

Thanks to the support of the EGU Science Journalism Fellowship, I had the opportunity to find out first-hand what it is like to ‘go to work’ in the Himalayas and carry out cutting-edge science in a region that boasts the largest stock of ice outside the Arctic and the Antarctic – also known as the Third Pole.

In 2006, scientists from the Ev-K2-CNR Committee, a nonprofit scientific association in Bergamo, Italy, and the Kathmandu-based Nepal Academy of Science and Technology set up the climate observatory at what they imagined would be a pristine site in the Himalayas. The aim was to measure baseline conditions, against which they could measure regional pollution. But what they found was “a total surprise”, says Marinoni: the mountains are teeming with dust and soot.

Figure 1. The Pyramid Observatory locates at over 5,000 metres above sea level on Everest’s south side. (Credit: Jane Qiu)

The Pyramid Observatory locates at over 5,000 metres above sea level on Everest’s south side. (Credit: Jane Qiu)

Now, along with another 8 weather stations along the valley, the team is trying to understand where the pollutants come from, how they are transported to the Himalayas, and how they are affecting both glaciers and regional climate.

Extreme landing

The Pyramid is literally in the middle of nowhere. The only way to get there is by foot from the nearest Nepalese village Lukla at an altitude of 2840 metres. As I stepped out of the 15-seat, unpressurised Twin Otter aircraft at Lukla – still recovering from the sudden dips the plane took every time it climbed over a ridge – Marinoni mentioned nonchalantly that the airport happens to be one of the top 10 extreme airports in the world that “flirt with disaster”. Indeed, flying in the Himalayas can be precarious: a similar jet crashed on its way to Pokhara in western Nepal a few months later. I wasn’t sure whether I should be pleased that our plane landed safely or ought to be concerned that I’d still need to fly back to Kathmandu.

Our plane landed safely at the Lukla airport, one of the 10 airports in the world that “flirt with disaster”. (Credit: Jane Qiu)

Our plane landed safely at the Lukla airport, one of the 10 airports in the world that “flirt with disaster”. (Credit: Jane Qiu)

But the spectacular, snow-capped mountain peaks took my mind off this little dilemma. From here, it’s a six-day arduous journey to the Pyramid, walking past very different types of terrain – from lush forests to an alpine, rocky environment – along the Khumbu Valley, and accompanied by the soft tinkling of yak bells and the rumbling roar of the turquoise Dukh Kosi River.

It’s a popular route to the Everest Base Camp, and is frequented by trekkers, mountaineers, as well as people aspiring to break all sorts of world records (we met someone who aimed to be the first person to summit Everest on his bike and another who wanted to make tattoos at the highest altitude). Against this hustle and bustle is the harsh life of the local people, especially Nepalese porters who often carry far more than their own body weight to altitudes as high as 5,400 metres.

Those porters are also indispensable for the existence and continuous operation of the Pyramid because there is simply no other way to get anything – ranging from daily subsistence to scientific equipment and construction materials – to the site.

A Nepalese porter carrying new scientific equipment to the Pyramid.

A Nepalese porter carrying new scientific equipment to the Pyramid.

Himalayan haze

The Khumbu Valley is dotted with villages which earn most of their income from tourism and mountaineering. Most of the houses do not have chimneys, which local people believe would let out protective spirit and good fortune. At cooking hours, we saw thick threads of smoke oozing out of the houses and a pungent odour filled the air. As biomass such as wood, dung and crop residues is the main source of fuel for cooking and heating in the Himalayas, pollution, especially black carbon, is “a major concern”, said Bonasoni.

The Third Pole -- a term used to designate the gigantic land mass consisting of the Tibetan plateau and surrounding mountain ranges -- has become a catchphrase in local tourism in the Khumbu Valley. (Credit: Jane Qiu)

The Third Pole – a term used to designate the gigantic land mass consisting of the Tibetan plateau and surrounding mountain ranges – has become a buzzword for local tourism in the Khumbu Valley. (Credit: Jane Qiu)

Another source of pollution is forest fires, which have become increasingly frequent in recent decades because of warmer and drier springs. Part of our journey was indeed shadowed by such a fire not too far from the path. It was just one of 86 forest fires that broke out in Nepal on that day.

A forest fire broke out in the Khumbu Valley. (Credit: Jane Qiu)

Our first day of trekking in the Khumbu Valley was greeted by a forest fire, one of 86 in Nepal on that day. (Credit: Jane Qiu)

The main culprit, however, is the pollutant-laden atmospheric brown clouds over the Indo-Gangetic Plain, which result from biomass burning, vehicle emissions and industrial processes. They can travel thousands of kilometres a day – extending southward over the Indian Ocean and characterised by a sharp boundary in the north due to the barrier formed by the Himalayas. But “the barrier is leaky,” said Marinoni. The Khumbu Valley is like a gigantic chimney that can effectively channel the pollutants piled up at the foothill to high altitudes.

With every step up the Khumbu Valley, my lungs struggled harder to grasp for more air. The landscape had transformed from lush forests to a rocky, alpine habitat sprinkled with fresh spring snow. The glacier-capped peak of the Ama Dablam (meaning “mother’s necklace” in Nepalese) loomed in the distant, inspiring and intimidating in equal measures. It would take nearly a week of walking to reach the Pyramid. The journey was breathtaking in more ways than one.

Stay tuned for Jane’s next instalment on studies of pollution in the Himalayas, where she shares her experience of shadowing atmospheric scientists some 5000 metres above sea level.

By Jane Qiu, Science Writer

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