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The day the Earth trembled: A first-hand account of the 25 April Nepal earthquake

The day the Earth trembled: A first-hand account of the 25 April Nepal earthquake

On the 25th April 2015, Viktor Bruckman, a researcher at the Austrian Academy of Sciences, and a team of his colleagues were a few hours into a hike between the settlements of Lamabagar, in a remote area of northeastern Nepal, and the Lapchi Monastery when a magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck Nepal. Their journey cut short by the trembling Earth, stranded in the heights of the Himalayas, this is their personal experience of the Gorkha earthquake, summarised by EGU Communications Officer Laura Roberts. 

Researching land use in Nepal

Bruckman is part of an international team of researchers, from Austria, Nepal and China, studying the land use and forest resource management in the densely wooded and remote Gaurishankar Conservation Area, in eastern Nepal. Bruckman and his team want to better understand how the local communities are linked to the resources in the area and how their daily life has been affected since the introduction of the Conservation Area. Their research project also aims to explore how the ongoing building of the largest hydropower plant in Nepal: the Upper Tamakoshi Hydropower Project (UTHP) might disrupt the local populations.

The team conducted a set of semi-structured interviews in order to assess land management practices and the impact of new management policies since the Gaurishankar Conservation Area was set up in 2010 (by Dr. Viktor Bruckman).

The team conducted a set of semi-structured interviews to assess land management practices and the impact of new management policies since the Gaurishankar Conservation Area was set up in 2010 (Credit: Dr. Viktor Bruckman).

To answer these questions, Bruckman and his colleagues travelled to Nepal in April to participate in workshops with government and institutional bodies based in Kathmandu, as well as visiting local communities deep within the Gaurishankar Conservation Area to conduct face-to-face interviews.

Beyond the hydropower construction site there are no roads, meaning the team had to hike across the rugged Himalayas to reach the residents of the most remote settlements and the target location for setting up monitoring plots. Their planned route would take them 25 km from Lamabagar, at 2000 m above sea level, reaching Lapchi Monastery, close to the Tibetan border, two days later having climbed to an altitude of 3800 m.

The hike

On the morning of the 25th April, a team composed of Bruckman, his Nepalese colleague Prof. Devkota, Devkota’s student Puskar and Prof. Katzensteiner from the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences Vienna (BOKU), set off on the trek to Lapchi. They were accompanied, albeit a little later following breakfast, by three porters who carried the bulk of their scientific equipment, some food and other ‘home comforts’ such as sleeping bags and mattresses. Given the physical effort the trek would involve, many of the food supplies were delivered to Lapchi via helicopter, a few days in advance – local porters would meet the team at settlements downstream of the monastery and deliver the provisions over the course of the next few days.

Despite the constant drizzle and strains of the climb, the entire team was stuck by the beauty of the surroundings: steep cliffs of metamorphosed sedimentary series (Tethys Himalaya within the Central Himalayan Domain), diverse mix deciduous forests and glistening streams.

The moment everything changed

At 12:05, not long after having traversed the most challenging section of the hike thus far, walking along the Lapchi River Valley, the ground under the team’s feet started to quiver. The quiver quickly grew to a strong shake dislodging football sized rocks from the surrounding slopes. The realisation hit the researchers that they were experiencing an earthquake and their primary concern was to seek shelter from the ongoing rock fall triggered by the ground shaking.

“Large rocks, with size equal to small houses, smashed into the river breaking into smaller pieces which where flung in all directions”, describes Bruckman, who by now had found protection, alongside Prof. Devkota, behind a large tree.

A few moments later, the earthquake ended and both emerged from behind the tree unharmed.

Left: Rockfall from the opposite cliffs made our location a highly dangerous place. Right: Seconds after the main tremor was over, everything was changed. The river color turned brown, dust and Sulphur smell was in the air and the path was destroyed by small landslides or rocks (Credit: Prof. Dr. Klaus Katzensteiner).

Left: Rockfall from the opposite cliffs made the researchers’ location a highly dangerous place. Right: Seconds after the main tremor was over, everything was changed. The river color turned brown, dust and Sulphur smell was in the air and the path was destroyed by small landslides or rocks (Credit: Prof. Dr. Klaus Katzensteiner).

They found Prof. Katzensteiner sheltering under a large rock overhang, but there was no sign of Puskar. The three men eyed up a large boulder which had come to rest on the path and feared the worst. Some minutes later, Puskar appeared, unharmed, along the path accompanied by a lama – a Buddhist monk – who’d encouraged the student to run up hill away from the projectiles from the river.

“The lama saved our student’s life; he was almost hit by a large rock which destroyed the water bottle attached to his backpack,” says Bruckman.

A stroke of luck

With their porters some hours trek behind them, almost no food supplies and no other equipment, and worried about potential flash floods as a result of landslides upstream, the group decided to make their way out of the valley and head back towards Lamabagar, only to find that the trail had been wiped out by a massive landslide.

The lama’s knowledge of the local terrain was invaluable as he guided the scientists to a meditation centre, where a group of about 20 lamas kindly took them in, sharing their food, offering tea and a place to sleep.

Having found a place of shelter, Bruckman and his colleagues, knowing how worried their families would be, were desperate to contact them. But amongst the high peaks of the Himalayas, in one of the most remote parts of Nepal, mobile phone signal is hard to come by. Only once, on the morning of the 26th of April, were the group successful in reaching loved ones, but it was enough: they were able to communicate they had survived, but were now trapped in the Lapchi River Valley.

The retreat where lamas provided the scientists with food and shelter (Credit: Prof. Dr. Klaus Katzensteiner).

The retreat where lamas provided the scientists with food and shelter (Credit: Prof. Dr. Klaus Katzensteiner).

Back home, a rescue mission started: The scientists’ families, the officials of their institutions, their countries Foreign Ministries’, Embassies and the local military all rallied to locate and bring home the researchers. Five days after first arriving at the Buddhist meditation centre, the group was rescued by a helicopter, which took them to the safety of military camp Charikot.

Retracing their steps, this time in a helicopter, Bruckman and his colleagues realised the scale of the devastation caused by the earthquake. The first village they’d intended to reach on their hike, Lumnang, was completely destroyed. 80% of the building structures in the valley had disappeared. Landslides has wiped out large sections of the trail, meaning returning to Lamabagar would have been out of the question.

Tragedy

The team’s porters, travelling behind the researchers when the earthquake hit, were far less fortunate. Tragically, one of the team’s porters was killed by a landslide triggered by the earthquake, whilst another was seriously injured. Only one returned safely to Lamabagar. Whilst hiking, the scientists overtook several groups of people also headed towards Lapchi and a team of hydropower experts – they are all reported missing.

The region, already damaged by the April 25th earthquake, was further rocked by a powerful, magnitude 7.3, aftershock. Since then, Bruckman and his colleagues have been unable to reach their contacts in Lamabagar. Reports indicate that hardly any structures were left standing in the village.

A view of Lamabagar prior to the earthquakes. At 2000m a.s.l., the village lies on the flat riverbed of the Upper Tamakoshi River, which developed as a consequence of a massive landslide (probably earthquake-induced) in the past (by Dr. Viktor Bruckman).

A view of Lamabagar prior to the earthquakes. At 2000m a.s.l., the village lies on the flat riverbed of the Upper Tamakoshi River, which developed as a consequence of a massive landslide (probably earthquake-induced) in the past (Credit: Dr. Viktor Bruckman).

The future

Following the earthquake, the scientists realise that the original research aims are no longer valid and “we would probably not meet the communities’ needs if we stick to the original ideas”, explains Bruckman.

Therefore, the plan is to carefully assess the regions current situation and develop a new research proposal which will focus on supporting the remote villages on a long-term and sustainable basis. In the event of any future field work in the region, the scientist will ensure they carry, at the very least, an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB), if not a satellite phone.

Science aside, their experience in the Nepal means the scientists were deeply touched by the kindness extended to them by the lamas and now seek to support the communities affected by the earthquakes. In particular they want to raise funds for the families of the porters who passed away and were injured while transporting their supplies.

 By Laura Roberts, EGU Communications Officer

A message from Bruckman and his colleagues

Please help us support the affected families.

For the purpose of collecting donations, we opened an account at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences Vienna (BOKU). Funds will be collected in a transparent manner and directly used for supporting the porter’s families and the villagers of Lumnang, who have lost everything and they will most likely not receive help from other sources soon. We will facilitate support through the trustworthy Nepalese project partners (including full documentation) and the Lamas of Lapchi monastery and from the retreat where we were able to stay. Please help us to support this remote region; even a small contribution is very much appreciated. Our direct contacts ensure that 100% of the donations reach the target group.

Here are the account details for wire transfer:

Recipient: Universität für Bodenkultur Wien, Spenden IBAN: AT48 3200 0018 0050 0512 BIC: RLNWATWWXXX Payment reference: 7912000003

Payments via Credit Card are also possible (Master Card and Visa). Should you wish to pay per credit card, please send an e-mail containing your name, address, card number, expiry date and security code (3-digits) to c.hofer@boku.ac.at.

We thank you very much for your contribution!

The team after their ordeal. They extend their deepest condolences to the family of the porter that lost his life during our the Prof. Dr. Klaus Katzensteiner).

The team after their ordeal. They extend their deepest condolences to the family of the porter who lost his life during the expedition. (Credit: Prof. Dr. Klaus Katzensteiner).

 

This blog post is a summary of: How a geophysical extreme event dramatically changed fieldwork plans – a personal account of the Gorkha Earthquake, originally posted on the EGU’s Energy, Resources and the Environment Division Blog.

For more information about the 2015 April and May earthquakes, please see the links provided in the original blog post. You can also access more information via this information briefing issued by the EGU.

Iceland’s Bárðarbunga-Holuhraun: a remarkable volcanic eruption

Iceland’s Bárðarbunga-Holuhraun: a remarkable volcanic eruption

A six month long eruption accompanied by caldera subsidence and huge amounts of emitted gasses and extruded lavas; there is no doubt that the eruption of the Icelandic volcano in late 2014 and early 2015 was truly remarkable. In a press conference, (you can live stream it here), which took place during the recent EGU General Assembly, scientists reported on the latest from the volcano.

Seismic activity in this region of Iceland had been ongoing since 2007, but in late August 2014 a swarm of earthquakes indicated that the activity at Bárðarbunga-Holuhraun was ramping up a notch. By August 18th, over 2600 earthquakes had been registered by the seismometer network, ranging in magnitude between M1.5 and M4.5. Scientist now know that one of the main drivers of the activity was the collapse of the ice-filled Bárðarbunga caldera.

Caldera collapses -where the roof of a magma chamber collapses as a result of the chamber emptying during a volcanic eruption – are rare; there have only been seven recorded events this century. The Bárðarbunga eruption is the first caldera collapse to have occurred in Iceland since 1875. They can be very serious events which result in catastrophic eruptions (e.g. the Toba eruption of 74,000 BP). In other cases the formation of the large cauldron happens over time, with the surface of the volcano slowly subsiding as vast amounts of magma are drained away via surface lava flows and the formation of dykes. Bárðarbunga caldera subsided slowly and progressively, much more so than is common for this type of eruption, to form a depression approximately 8km wide and 60m deep.

“The associated volcanic eruption, which took place 40km away from the caldera, was the largest, by volume and mass of erupted materials, recorded in Iceland in the past 230 years”, described Magnus T. Gudmundsson, Professor at the Institute of Earth Sciences at the University of Iceland, during the press conference.

If the facts and figures above aren’t sufficiently impressive, the eruption at Holuhraun also produced the largest amount of lava on the island since 1783, with a total volume of over 1.6 km3 and stretching over more than 85 km4. In places, the lava flows where 30 m thick!

The impressive figures shouldn’t detract from the significance of the events that took place during those six months: scientists were able to observe the processes by which new land is made on Earth! Major rifting episodes like this “only happen once every 50 years or so”, explained Gudmundsson.

So what exactly have scientists learnt? Most divergent boundaries – where two plates pull apart from one another – are found at Mid-Ocean Ridges, meaning there is little opportunity to study rifting episodes at the Earth’s surface. The eruption at Bárðarbunga-Holuhraun offered researchers the unique opportunity to take a closer look at how rifting takes place; something which so far has only been possible at the Afar rift in Ethiopia.

New crust is generated at divergent plate margins, commonly fed by vertical sheet dykes – narrow, uniformly thick sheets of igneous material originating from underlying magma chambers. Dykes at divergent plate boundaries are common because the crust is being stretched and weakened. One of the clusters of seismic activity at Bárðarbunga-Holuhraun was consistent with the formation of a dyke. The seismic signal showed that the magma from the Bárðarbunga caldera, rather than being transported vertically upwards to the surface, was in fact being transported laterally, forming a magma filled fissure which stretched 45 km away from Bárðarbunga. This video, from the Icelandic Met Office, helps to visualise the growth of the dyke over time.

The figure shows all the earthquakes which took place in the region in and around Bárðarbunga, from 16 August 2016 until 3 May 2015. The bar on the right counts days since the onset of events, and it gives a colour code indicative of the time passed. The dark blue colour implies the oldest earthquakes whereas the red colour implies the youngest earthquakes. The earthquakes clearly show the growth of a lateral dyke, headed northeast, away from the Bárðarbunga caldera. Click here to enlarge the map. (Credit: Icelandic Meteorological Office)

The figure shows all the earthquakes which took place in the region in and around Bárðarbunga, from 16 August 2016 until 3 May 2015. The bar on the right counts days since the onset of events, and it gives a colour code indicative of the time passed. The dark blue colour implies the oldest earthquakes whereas the red colour implies the youngest earthquakes. The earthquakes clearly show the growth of a lateral dyke, headed northeast, away from the Bárðarbunga caldera. Click here to enlarge the map. (Credit: Icelandic Meteorological Office)

Further study of the dyke using understanding gained the from propagating seismicity, ground deformation mapped by Global Positioning System (GPS), and interferometric analysis of satellite radar images (InSAR), allowed scientists to observe how the ground around the dyke changed in height and shape. The measurements showed the dyke was not a continuous feature, but rather it appeared broken into segments which had variable orientations. Modelling of the dyke revealed that it was the interaction of the laterally moving magma with the local topography, as well as stresses in the ground cause by the divergent plates, that lead to the unusual shape of the dyke.

On average, magma flowed in the dyke at a rate of 260 m3/s, but the speed of its propagation was extremely variable. When the magma reached natural barriers, it would slow down, only picking up momentum again once pressure built up sufficiently to overcome the barriers. Shallow depressions observed in the ice of Vatnajokull glacier (the white area in the map above) – known as Ice cauldrons – were caused by minor eruptions underneath the ice at the tips of some of the dyke segments. The dyke propagation slowed down once the fissure eruption at Holuhraun started in September 2014.

What has the Bárðarbunga-Holuhraun taught scientists about rifting processes? It seems that at divergent plate boundaries, in order to create new crust over long distances, magma generated at central volcanoes (in this case Bárðarbunga), is distributed via segmented lateral dykes, as opposed to being erupted directly above the magma chamber.

 

By Laura Roberts Artal, EGU Communications Officer

 

Further reading and references

You can stream the full press conference here: http://client.cntv.at/egu2015/PC7

Details of the speakers at the press conference are available at: http://media.egu.eu/press-conferences-2015/#volcano

The speakers at the press conference also reported on the gas emissions as a result of the Holuhraun fissure eruption and the implications for human health. You can read more on this here: Bardarbunga eruption gases estimated.

Sigmundsson, F., A. Hooper, Hreinsdóttir, et al.: Segmented lateral dyke growth in a rifting event at Bárðarbunga volcanic system, Iceland, Nature, 517, 191-195, doi:10.1038/nature1411, 2015.

Sigmundsson, F., A. Hooper, Hreinsdóttir, et al.: Segmented lateral dyke growth in a rifting event at Bárðarbunga volcanic system, Iceland, Geophys. Res. Abstr.,17, EGU2015-10322-1, 2015 (conference abstract).

Hannah I. Reynolds, H. T., M. T. Gudmundsson, and T. Högnadóttir: Subglacial melting associated with activity at Bárdarbunga volcano, Iceland, explored using numerical reservoir simulation, Geophys. Res. Abstr.,17, EGU2015-10753-2, 2015 (conference abstract).

Imaggeo on Mondays: Earthquake Lake

Imaggeo on Mondays: Earthquake Lake

Despite its alluring turquoise waters and rugged mountain backdrop the story behind this beautiful lake is rather more troubling. In today’s Imaggeo on Mondays, the first post since our short break from the traditional format during the General Assembly, Alexander Osadchiev writes about the shaky origins of Sarez Lake.

Lake Sarez is situated in Tajikistan, deep in the Pamir Mountains. In 1911 a local earthquake caused a large landslide which blocked the valley of the relatively small Murgab River (which discharge is only 100-150 m^3/s). The valley is relatively young, on the geological scale at least, meaning it is deep and narrow and has steep sided slopes. This is the reason why the moderate volume of the landslide (about 2 km^3) was enough to form the tremendously high Usoi dam (about 550 m) – the tallest in the world either natural or man-made. The length of the Usoi dam is about 500 m which is almost equal to its height. However, lakes formed by landslide dams blocking river valleys are not uncommon in the Pamir Mountains or elsewhere around the world.

Most blocking dams are not high or solid enough to remain in place for extended periods of time. Initially, a river will seep through the dam eroding it, but usually the outflow discharge is less than the river inflow into the lake. Together with active sedimentation and silting, the water level in the lake steadily increases until it reaches the dam height. Eventually water starts flowing over the top of the dam and intensively destroys the dam. Yet due to a number of circumstances the behavior of the Sarez Lake was significantly different. On the one hand, the Usoi dam is solid enough not to have been significantly eroded in the more than one hundred years since it appeared. At the same time, it is porous: outflow and inflow volumes of water across the dam balance each other.  Crucially, this balance was obtained for a very high water level, close to the height of Usoi dam itself. Lake water levels oscillate near 500 m height, just 50m away from the top of the of 550 m dam. The height of the dam resulted in the large size of the Sarez Lake – its length is about 60 km and its volume exceeds 16 km^3.

This large volume of water (and potential energy!) situated high in the mountains (3263 m above the sea level) presents a hazard for millions of people in Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan living below the Sarez Lake and along the banks of the Mugrab, Panj and Amu Darya rivers. The Usoi dam is solid enough to resist erosion and create such a big lake, but it is not known if it can withstand a big earthquake, which are not uncommon in the area. Not only can an earthquake directly destabilize Usoi dam, but an earthquake-induced landslide into the lake could cause a lake tsunami and result in the dam overflowing. Particularly, an area of friable soil forming a unstable slope, has been particularly identified as a risk. Following a large earthquake (8-9 on the Richter scale) it could presumably form a landslide.

The levels of monitoring and investigation of landslide hazards in the region and the risk presented by Lake Sarez itself are still largely understudied. Limited funding availability in Tajikistan and the remoteness of the lake – it can only be reached on foot, after several days of strenuous mountain trekking through an almost uninhabited, but unbelievably beautiful area – are amongst the main reasons this is so.

“The view of the Sarez Lake was the best prize for me and Zhamal Toktamysova at the final part of our 2-week trekking through the Pamir Mountains”, explains Alexander.

 

By Alexander Osadchiev, Shirshov Institute of Oceanology, Physical Oceanography, Moscow

Communicate your Science Video Competition finalists: time to get voting!

For the second year in a row we’re running the EGU Communicate Your Science Video Competition – the aim being for young scientists to communicate their research in a short, sweet and public-friendly video. Our judges have now selected 3 fantastic finalists from the excellent entries we received this year and it’s time to find the best geoscience communication clip!

The shortlisted videos will be open to a public vote from now until midnight on 16 Apri; – just ‘like’ the video on YouTube to give it your seal of approval. The video with the most likes when voting closes will be awarded a free registration to the EGU General Assembly 2016.

The finalists are shown below, but you can also catch them in this finalist playlist and even take a seat in GeoCinema – the home of geoscience films at the General Assembly – to see the shortlist and select your favourite.

Please note that only positive votes will be taken into account.

The finalists:

Inside Himalayan Lakes by Zakaria Ghazoui. Like this video to vote for it!

 

Glacial Mystery by Guillaume Jouvet. Like this video to vote for it!

 

Floods by Chiara Arrighi. Like this video to vote for it!

 –

The winning entry will be announced during the lunch break on the last day of the General Assembly (Friday 17 April).

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