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Himalayas

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/.

GeoTalk: How are clouds born?

GeoTalk: How are clouds born?

Geotalk is a regular feature highlighting early career researchers and their work. In this interview we speak to Federico Bianchi, a researcher based at University of Helsinki, working on understanding how clouds are born. Federico’s quest to find out has taken him from laboratory experiments at CERN, through to the high peaks of the Alps and to the clean air of the Himalayan mountains. His innovative experimental approach and impressive publication record, only three years out of his PhD, have been recognised with one of four Arne Richter Awards for Outstanding Early Career Scientists in 2017.

First, could you introduce yourself and tell us a little more about your career path so far?

I am an enthusiastic atmospheric chemist  with a passion for the mountains. My father introduced me to chemistry and my mother comes from the Alps. This mix is probably the reason why I ended up doing research at high altitude.

I studied chemistry at the University of Milan where I got my degree in 2009.  During my bachelor and master thesis I investigated atmospheric issues affecting the polluted Po’ Valley in Northern Italy and since then I have always  worked as an atmospheric chemist.

I did my PhD at the Paul Scherrer Institute in Switzerland where I mainly worked at the CLOUD experiment at CERN. After that, I used the acquired knowledge to study the same phenomena, first, at almost 4000 m in the heart of the Alps and later at the Everest Base Camp.

I did one year postdoc at the ETH in Zurich and now I have my own Fellowship paid by the Swiss National Science Foundation to conduct research at high altitude with the support of the University of Helsinki.

We are all intimately familiar with clouds. They come in all shapes and sizes and are bringers of shade, precipitation, and sometimes even extreme weather. But most of us are unlikely to have given much thought to how clouds are born. So, how does it actually happen?

We all know that the air is full of water vapor, however, this doesn’t mean that we have clouds all the time.

When air rises in the atmosphere it cools down and after reaching a certain humidity it will start to condense and form a cloud droplet. In order to form such a droplet the water vapor needs to condense on a cloud seed that is commonly known as a cloud condensation nuclei. Pure water droplets would require conditions that are not present in our atmosphere. Therefore, it is a good assumption to say that each cloud droplet contains a little seed.

At the upcoming General Assembly you’ll be giving a presentation highlighting your work on understanding how clouds form in the free troposphere. What is the free troposphere and how is your research different from other studies which also aim to understand how clouds form?

The troposphere, the lower part of the atmosphere, is subdivided in two different regions. The first is in contact with the Earth’s surface and is most affected by human activity. This one is called the planetary boundary layer, while the upper part is the so called free troposphere.

From several studies we know that a big fraction of the cloud seeds formed in the free troposphere are produced by a gas-to-particles conversion (homogeneous nucleation), where different molecules of unknown substances get together to form tiny particles. When the conditions are favourable they can grow into bigger sizes and potentially become cloud condensation nuclei.

In our research, we are the first ones to take state of the art instrumentation, that previously, had only been used in laboratory experiments or within the planetary boundary layer, to remote sites at high altitude.

Federico has taken state of the art instrumentation, that previously, had only been used in laboratory experiments or within the planetary boundary layer, to remote sites at high altitude. Credit: Federico Bianchi

At the General Assembly you plan on talking about how some of the processes you’ve identified in your research are potentially very interesting in order to understand the aerosol conditions in the pre-industrial era (a time period for when information is very scarce). Could you tell us a little more about that?

Aerosols are defined as solid or liquid particles suspended in a gas. They are very important because they can have an influence on the Earth’s climate, mainly by interacting with the solar radiation and cooling temperatures.

The human influence on the global warming estimated by the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (known as the IPCC) is calculated based on a difference between the pre-industrial era climate indicators and the present day conditions. While we are starting to understand the aerosols present currently, in the atmosphere, we still know very little about the conditions before the industrial revolution.

For many years it has been thought that the atmosphere is able to produce new particles/aerosol only if sulphur dioxide (SO2) is present. This molecule is a vapor mainly emitted by combustion processes; which, prior to the industrial revolution was only present in the atmosphere at low concentrations.

For the first time, results from our CLOUD experiments, published last year,  proved that organic vapours emitted by trees, such as alpha-pinene, can also nucleate and form new particles, without the presence of SO2. In a parallel study, we also observed that pure organic nucleation can take place in the free troposphere.

We therefore have evidence that the presence of sulphur dioxide isn’t necessary to make such a mechanism possible. Finally, with all this new information, we are able to say that indeed, in the pre-industrial era the atmosphere was able to produce new particles (clouds seeds) by oxidation of vapors emitted by the vegetation.

Often, field work can be a very rewarding part of the research process, but traditional research papers have little room for relaying those experiences. What were the highlights of your time in the Himalayas and how does the experience compare to your time spent carrying out laboratory experiments?

Doing experiments in the heart of the Himalayas is rewarding. But life at such altitude is tough. Breathing, walking and thinking is made difficult by the lack of oxygen at high altitudes.

I have always been a scientists who enjoys spending time in the laboratory. For this reason I very much liked  the time I spent in CERN, although, sometimes it was quite stressful. Being part of such a large international collaboration and being able to actively do science was a major achievement for me. However, when I realized I could also do what I love in the mountains, I just couldn’t  stop myself from giving it a go.

The first experiment in the Alps was the appetizer for the amazing Himalayan experience. During this trip, we first travelled to Kathmandu, in Nepal. Then, we flew to Luckla (hailed as one of the scariest airport in the world) and we started our hiking experience, walking from Luckla (2800 m) up to the Everest Base Camp (5300 m). We reached the measurement site after a 6 days hike through Tibetan bridges, beautiful sherpa villages, freezing nights and sweaty days. For the whole time we were surrounded by the most beautiful mountains I have ever seen. The cultural element was even more interesting. Meeting new people from a totally different culture was the cherry on the cake.

However I have to admit that it was not always as easy as it sounds now. Life at such altitude is tough. It is difficult to breath, difficult to walk and to install the heavy instrumentation. In addition to that, the temperature in your room during nights goes well below zero degrees. The low oxygen doesn’t really help your thinking, especially we you need to troubleshoot your instrumentation. It happens often that after such journey, the instruments are not functioning properly.

I can say that, as a mountain and science lover, this was just amazing. Going on a field campaign is definitely the  best part of this beautiful job.

To finish the interview I wanted to talk about your career. Your undergraduate degree was in chemistry. Many early career scientists are faced with the option (or need) to change discipline at sometime throughout their studies or early stages of their career. How did you find the transition and what advice would you have for other considering the same?

As I said before, I studied chemistry and by the end of my degree my favourite subject moved to atmospheric chemistry. The atmosphere is a very complex system and in order to study it, we need a multidisciplinary approach. This forced me to learn several other aspects that I had never been in touch with before. Nowadays, I still define myself as a chemist, although my knowledge base is very varied.

I believe that for a young scientist it is very important to understand which are his or her strengths and being able to take advantage of them. For example, in my case, I have used my knowledge in chemistry and mass spectrometry to try to understand the complex atmospheric system.

Geotalk is a regular feature highlighting early career researchers and their work.

Imaggeo on Mondays: Deep in the Himalayas

Deep in the Himalayas . Credit: Yuval Sadeh (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu).

The Himalayas: vast, formidable and home to the Earth’s highest peaks. The mountain range stretches inexorably through Indian, Bhutan, Nepal, China (Tibet) and Pakistan separating the Tibetan Plateau to the north from India’s alluvial plains to the south.

India, as we know it today, started life much further south, as an island not far off the coast of Australia. It was separated from Asia (on the Eurasian plate) by the Tethys Ocean, a vast body of water which  wrapped, almost entirely, around the supercontinent Pangea. As the supercontinent started to break up, some 200 million years ago, India began its slow (in human terms, but quite fast geologically speaking) journey north towards Asia.

Moving at speeds between 9 to 16 cm per year (for comparison, human hair grows roughly 15 cm per year), by 80 million years ago, India was located 6,400 km south of Asia. The Tethys was being slowly subducted under the Asian plate and would eventually close (disappear) all together some 30 million years later, when the Indian plate collided against Asia and the Himalayas began to uplift.

The closing and subduction of the Tethyan Ocean, followed by the collision of the two continents produced the Himalayas. The mountain range is divided into six parallel belts, each of which has distinct lithotectonic zones. They are highly complex and represent a long history of tectonic processes and deformation events.

The high peaks of Nepal and China attract a fair share of the limelight, offering thrill seeking adventurers the possibility to get close to (if not scale) the highest mountains on Earth. But lesser known areas of the Himalayas also offer a window into the geological past of the planet and breathtaking scenes for intrepid people too.

Today’s photograph features a valley deep in the Indian Himalayas, and illustrates some geological, geomorphological and other phenomena’s together with a small village that was built inside this glacier curved valley.

 

If you pre-register for the 2017 General Assembly (Vienna, 22 – 28 April), you can take part in our annual photo competition! From 1 February up until 1 March, every participant pre-registered for the General Assembly can submit up three original photos and one moving image related to the Earth, planetary, and space sciences in competition for free registration to next year’s General Assembly!  These can include fantastic field photos, a stunning shot of your favourite thin section, what you’ve captured out on holiday or under the electron microscope – if it’s geoscientific, it fits the bill. Find out more about how to take part at http://imaggeo.egu.eu/photo-contest/information/.