Glacier Flash Flood: Glaciers in Wonderland

In Alice in Wonderland, the Red Queen declares, “Sentence first, verdict afterwards.” That resembles media reports (including a long one in the Washington Post) on the flash flood in the high Himalayas in February that destroyed two hydel projects, killed at least 58 people, and left 125 others missing. So remote is the terrain that even today nobody knows exactly where the disaster originated or why. Landslides and avalanches are common in the region and were probably the cause, but we have no firm evidence. Yet many media claimed, hilariously, that it was a “glacier burst.” Sorry, but glaciers are not balloons and do not burst. Parts of glaciers can melt and fall off, as in low altitudes near the sea (e.g., Greenland) where temperatures are close to zero. But this is much rarer in the high Himalayas where temperatures can be 20 degrees below the freezing point. Since India has not had any comparable “glacier burst” in summer, why should it happen in February, the coldest month? Every summer millions of pilgrims visit the Gangotri glacier, the source of the holy Ganges river, without mishap.

Experts say temperatures in the high Himalayas have risen by over one degree recently. Yet they remain below the freezing point. Higher overall temperatures would accelerate melting and increase the downstream flow in the Ganges. No such surge in flows shows up in official data. Bangladesh has often complained of declining water availability in the Ganges, not excess flows from accelerated glacial melting.

The 2007 IPCC report claimed that melting Himalayan glaciers might disappear by 2035. Subsequent investigations showed this was pure speculation, so the IPCC deleted this. The Indian government appointed a committee led by glaciologist VK Raina. Its 2009 report, “Himalayan Glaciers: A State of the Art Review of Glacial Studies, Glacial Retreat and Climate Change,” concluded that while glaciers had been retreating since the end of the last Ice Age, no acceleration had occurred in recent decades. Indeed, melting was almost zero in some years in the Gangotri glacier, India’s biggest. A recent study by Dhruv Sen Singh et al. in Quaternary International showed that the retreat of the Gangotri glacier had slowed to 10 meters/​year in 2001–15, down from 40 meters/​year in 1962–82, even though temperatures had risen. Singh and Raina say glacier retreat is determined overwhelmingly by very local factors, hardly at all by global ones.

The Himalayas are geologically unstable and seismic. The greatest quake, in Assam in 1897, destroyed buildings from Delhi to Myanmar. The greatest recent quake, in Kashmir in 2005, killed 86,000 people and displaced 2.5 million. Compared with these, the recent flash flood was a minor event. Far worse was a 2013 cloudburst in the same region that killed 5,700 people.

Retreating glaciers leave behind thousands of glacial lakes that can burst and cause flooding. These need to be drained periodically to safe levels. The Karakoram Highway linking China and Pakistan is repeatedly blocked by landslides. In 2010 a landslide blocked 19 kilometers of the Highway, and submerged part of it in a newly‐​formed lake 21 kilometers long.

In sum, the Himalayas have natural disasters galore. But activist groups opposing dams and climate change claim every natural disaster is actually man‐​made. The media lap up such speculation. The Washington Post cites Ravi Chopra of the People’s Science Institute speculating that the flood was a natural event but as it rolled down the river it collected debris after smashing dams and bridges and “moved with greater speed.” Sorry, but a flood slows down after hitting a dam or bridge. Far from worsening the problem, these barriers would have slowed the flood, reducing damage downstream. That is why deaths were far fewer than in the 2013 floods.

The role of dams in checking floods is constantly ignored by activists. In India, the Damodar River in Bengal was nicknamed the River of Sorrow because its floods constantly killed so many. The Damodar Valley Corporation then built four dams to tame the river. Today nobody is killed by Damodar floods, and the dams irrigate 300,000 acres.

Not a whisper comes from activists or climate experts on how dams have saved thousands of lives. Their budgets, jobs, and TV appearances depend on damning all dams. If they fail to do so, they will be “canceled,’ lose their donations, budgets, and jobs. However, thousands of roads and dams have nevertheless been built safely in high mountains globally and in India. Does it matter to activists, or even journalists, that nobody knows yet what precisely caused last week’s flash flood? No, most would rather follow the Red Queen’s maxim of “sentence first, verdict later.”

The media are quick to cite studies suggesting that Himalayan glaciers are melting fast, despite the IPCC fiasco and Raina’s report. Another study of the Indian Space Research organization showed that, between 2001 and 2011, of the 2018 Himalayan glaciers studied, 1,752 were stable, 248 were retreating, and 18 were advancing. This is not a disaster scenario. Hardly any reporters cite this authoritative study. If they did so, they would never make page one.

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