The April 25 earthquake that killed thousands of people and leveled much of Kathmandu also devastated Nepal’s remote mountain villages. Massive landslides wiped out entire villages, rivers were dammed, and the earthquake further shook the geologic and geomorphic integrity of high-altitude mountains, glaciers, and glacial lakes.
Daene McKinney, Ph.D., P.E., D.WRE, M.ASCE, an active member of ASCE’s Environmental and Water Resources Institute (EWRI), is leading a research team from the High Mountains Adaptation Partnership (HiMaP) on a rapid-response mission where he will conduct field-based assessments of the Nepal earthquake’s impact on the country’s potentially dangerous glacial lakes. The team’s work is supported by contributions from Climate Change Resilient Development, a United States Agency for International Development project; The University of Texas at Austin; private donors; the ASCE Disaster Relief Fund, and ASCE-EWRI.
According to McKinney, “Seismic activity can trigger the flooding of potentially dangerous glacial lakes by weakening the structural integrity of the end moraine holding back the water. In many cases, there are millions of cubic meters of water that have accumulated as the glacier recedes. It is of critical importance that post-event assessments of Nepal’s most potentially dangerous glacial lakes be conducted as soon as possible to determine the damage caused by the earthquake as well as any increased threats of flooding and damage to downstream communities.”
Through HiMaP, a joint project of the University of Texas at Austin and the Mountain Institute, McKinney has been analyzing the risk of glacial lake outburst floods from Nepal’s glacial lakes for the past several years. He has made several trips to the high mountain lakes, which are now in need of rapid inspection, to determine the extent of changes and increased risk as a result of the earthquake. Since the April earthquake, the research team has conducted detailed remote-sensing analysis of the potentially perilous glacial lakes as part of the Nepal Earthquake Image Analysis Volunteer Group, under the NASA-USGS-Interagency Earthquake Response Team.
Between June and August, a HiMAP team will conduct rapid field-based assessments of Nepal’s most potentially dangerous glacial lakes in partnership with Nepal’s Department of Hydrology and Meteorology (DHM), the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), and the Government of Nepal’s Army. Imja Lake (16,437 ft), Tso Rolpa (14,915 ft), and Thulagi (13,268 ft) glacial lakes will be assessed through a combination of foot and helicopter travel. Additional lakes may be evaluated based on local need.
The team also will conduct detailed surveys of earthquake damage in the region’s villages, since they are not expected to receive any form of assistance for months to come. McKinney said, “We expect to find a lot of changes in the rural, mountain parts of Nepal. Some of it will be devastating as many areas have had near to complete destruction of buildings and infrastructure, but others have had more minor damage. In addition to building materials and techniques, much of this damage seems to depend on proximity to the epicenter and how the ground movements were propagated.”
Findings will be submitted for publication in ASCE’s journals, Civil Engineering, the EWRI newsletters, and other civil engineering research reporting channels. The insights obtained through this research are applicable to other parts of the world because the threat of destabilized glacial lakes exists in many countries, including the United States (Alaska), Canada, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina, Switzerland, Austria, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Bhutan, Myanmar, and China.