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Geosciences Column: Extreme snowfall potentially worsened Nepal’s 2015 earthquake-triggered avalanche

Geosciences Column: Extreme snowfall potentially worsened Nepal’s 2015 earthquake-triggered avalanche

Three years ago, an earthquake-induced avalanche and rockfalls buried an entire Nepalese village in ice, stone, and snow. Researchers now think the region’s heavy snowfall from the preceding winter may have intensified the avalanche’s disastrous effect.

The Langtang village, just 70 kilometres from Nepal’s capital Kathmandu, is nestled within a valley under the shadow of the Himalayas. The town was popular amongst trekking tourists, as the surrounding mountains offer breathtaking hiking opportunities.

But in April 2015, a 7.8-magnitude earthquake, also known as the Gorkha earthquake, triggered a massive avalanche and landslides, engulfing the village in debris.

Scientists estimate that the force of the avalanche was half as powerful the Hiroshima atomic bomb. The blast of air generated from the avalanche rushed through the site at more than 300 kilometres per hour, blowing down buildings and uprooting forests.

By the time the debris and wind had settled, only one village structure was left standing. The disaster claimed the lives of 350 people, with more than 100 bodies never located.

Before-and-after photographs of Nepal’s Langtang Valley showing the near-complete destruction of Langtang village. Photos from 2012 (pre-quake) and 2015 (post-quake) by David Breashears/GlacierWorks. Distributed via NASA Goddard on Flickr.

Since then, scientists have been trying to reconstruct the disaster’s timeline and determine what factors contributed to the village’s tragic demise.

Recently, researchers discovered that the region’s unusually heavy winter snowfall could have amplified the avalanche’s devastation. The research team, made up of scientists from Japan, Nepal, the Netherlands, Canada and the US, published their findings last year in the EGU’s open access journal Natural Hazards and Earth System Sciences.

To reach their conclusions, the team drew from various observational sources. For example, the researchers created three-dimensional models and orthomosaic maps, showing the region both before it was hit by the coseismic events and afterwards. The models and maps were pieced together using data collected before the earthquake and aerial images of the affected area taken by helicopter and drones in the months following the avalanche.

They also interviewed 20 villagers local to the Langtang valley, questioning each person on where he or she was during the earthquake and how much time had passed between the earthquake and the first avalanche event. In addition, the researchers asked the village residents to describe the ice, snow and rock that blanketed Langtang, including details on the colour, wetness, and surface condition of the debris.  

Based on their own visual ice cliff observations by the Langtang river and the villager interviews, the scientists believe that the earthquake-triggered avalanche hit Langtang first, followed then by multiple rockfalls, which were possibly triggered by the earthquake’s aftershocks.

A three-dimensional view of the Langtang mountain and village surveyed in this study. Image: K. Fujita et al.

According to the researchers’ models, the primary avalanche event unleashed 6,810,000 cubic metres of ice and snow onto the village and the surrounding area, a frozen flood about two and a half times greater in volume than the Egyptian Great Pyramid of Giza. The following rockfalls then contributed 840,000 cubic metres of debris.  

The researchers discovered that the avalanche was made up mostly of snow, and furthermore realized that there was an unusually large amount of snow. They estimated that the average snow depth of the avalanche’s mountainous source was about 1.82 metres, which was similar to snow depth found on a neighboring glacier (1.28-1.52 metres).

A deeper analysis of the area’s long-term meteorological data revealed that the winter snowfall preceding the avalanche was an extreme event, likely only to occur once every 100 to 500 years. This uncommonly massive amount of snow accumulated from four major snowfall events in mid-October, mid-December, early January and early March.

From these lines of evidence, the team concluded that the region’s anomalous snowfall may have worsened the earthquake’s destructive impact on the village.

The researchers believe their results could help improve future avalanche dynamics models. According to the study, they also plan to provide the Langtang community with a avalanche hazard map based on their research findings.  

Further reading

Qiu, J. When mountains collapse… Geolog (2016).

Roberts Artal, L. Geosciences Column: An international effort to understand the hazard risk posed by Nepal’s 2015 Gorkha earthquake. Geolog (2016).

Imaggeo on Mondays: A dramatic avalanche from Annapurna South

Imaggeo on Mondays: A dramatic avalanche from Annapurna South

The Annapurna massif is located in an imposing 55 km long collection of peaks in the Himalayas, which behave as a single structural block. Composed of one peak (Annapurna I Main) in excess of 8000 m, a further thirteen peaks over 7000 m and sixteen more of over 6000 m, the massif forms a striking structure within the Himalayas. Annapurna South (pictured in today’s featured image), the 101st tallest peak in the world, towers 7219 m above sea level.

Glaciers in High Mountain Asia, a region that includes the Himalayas, contain the largest volume of ice outside the polar regions. The water trapped, as ice, in the glaciers of the Himalayas is an important source of drinking water, water for irrigation and water for hydropower generation throughout the region. As the Earth’s climate changes and negatively affects glaciers world-wide, scientists are working hard to understand what increased glacier melting means for the communities which depend on them.

Emily Hill is one such scientist. Her and a team of colleagues spent 2 weeks at Annapurna Base Camp in Nepal conducting measurements on the debris covered South Annapurna Glacier.

“We frequently heard avalanches but often they were over too quick to capture on camera. Fortunately, this was one of the largest and the camera was at the ready. These avalanches are an important source of mass for the glacier below,” reminisces Emily.

Glaciers accumulate ice throughout the winter months, as snow adds to the glacial column during the cold months. In addition, avalanches deliver additional snow throughout the year.

“I’m not too sure of the scale of the avalanche, it could probably have been a couple of 100 m across. The avalanche occurred early afternoon when the solar radiation was highest and increased melt is likely to have caused the failure,” describes Emily.

Avalanches in the region are not only an important source of mass accumulation for many of the glaciers, they also pose a hazard not only to climbers of these mountains but also further down along the tourist trail up to Annapurna Base Camp, where there is an avalanche risk section of the route.

Imaggeo is the EGU’s online open access geosciences image repository. All geoscientists (and others) can submit their photographs and videos to this repository and, since it is open access, these images can be used for free by scientists for their presentations or publications, by educators and the general public, and some images can even be used freely for commercial purposes. Photographers also retain full rights of use, as Imaggeo images are licensed and distributed by the EGU under a Creative Commons licence. Submit your photos at http://imaggeo.egu.eu/upload/.

Imaggeo on Mondays: Annapurna snow avalanche

Imaggeo on Mondays: Annapurna snow avalanche

The Annapurna massif is located in an imposing 55 km long collection of peaks in the Himalayas, which behave as a single structural block. Composed of one peak (Annapurna I Main) in excess of 8000 m, a further thirteen peaks over 7000 m and sixteen more of over 6000 m, the massif forms a striking structure within the Himalayas.

Annapurna I Main, the tenth highest peak in the world, is towering at an impressive 8,091 m. Renowned for its difficult climbing conditions, it holds one of the highest fatality rates of the 8000+ peaks. October 2014 marked a particular dark period in the mountain’s climbing history when 39 trekkers were killed during severe snowstorms and avalanches while completing a popular hike circling Annapurna I.

Martin Struck, a PhD student at the University of Wollongong, Australia, captured this extraordinary photograph of a surging avalanche early one morning in October 2012. Martin visited the Annapurna massif as part of his Diploma project at the University of Potsdam about suspended sediment fluxes in the Kali Gandaki River which cuts the world’s deepest gorge through the Himalayas between the Annapurna and Dhaulagiri massifs. The snow avalanche careered down the ~35° sloping northeast flank of Tilicho himal, a peak only 10 km away from the Annapurna I summit.

“The avalanche is one of five I spotted that morning in the area. The tracks and runout zones of previous snow and/or dry snow avalanches are clearly visible in the image,” describes Martin.

He explains that rising morning temperatures triggered the avalanches, causing the failure of stable snow which had fallen on the night before.

The area is close to Tilicho Lake, located at about 4900 m above sea level, and one of many Himalayan glacial lakes which play a crucial role in the supply of water to the inhabitants of Nepal.

“Snow and glacial melt contribute approximately 10% to the annual discharge of the main Nepalese rivers, but are of significant important outside the monsoon season,” explains Martin.

Earlier on this year, a study published in the open access journal, The Cryosphere, found that if greenhouse-gas emissions continue to rise, glaciers in the Everest region of the Himalayas could experience dramatic change in the decades to come. The glacier model used in the paper shows that glacier volume could be reduced between 70% and 99% by 2100. The findings have important implications for the future availability of water in the region: a significant decrease in glacial volume would have consequences for agriculture and hydropower generation. You can learn more about this research and it’s consequences in this Press Release: Glacier changes at the top of the world – Over 70% of glacier volume in Everest region could be lost by 2100.

Imaggeo is the EGU’s online open access geosciences image repository. All geoscientists (and others) can submit their photographs and videos to this repository and, since it is open access, these images can be used for free by scientists for their presentations or publications, by educators and the general public, and some images can even be used freely for commercial purposes. Photographers also retain full rights of use, as Imaggeo images are licensed and distributed by the EGU under a Creative Commons licence. Submit your photos at http://imaggeo.egu.eu/upload/.