Climate change WAS to blame for the deadly 2016 avalanche that killed nine yak herders in Tibet, researchers claim

  • In the July 17 tragedy, 70 million tons of ice broke free from the Aru glacier
  • The event was later followed by another avalanche miles away in September
  • Western Tibet has long evaded effects of climate change, and has been stable 
  • But, researchers now say increased meltwater may have lubricated the ice 

A deadly avalanche that dumped 70 million tons of ice into a valley below the mountains of western Tibet this summer was likely the result of climate change, researchers warn.

While it’s long been thought that this region of the Tibetan Plateau is stable, researchers say this may no longer be the case.

The terrifying event occurred over just four or five minutes and claimed the lives of nine nomadic yak herders – and while other glaciers could be at risk, there’s currently no way to ‘predict such disasters.’

Slide the bar to see the region before and after the deadly avalanche 

To investigate the July phenomenon, the researcher used satellite and GPS data to precisely measure how much ice fell, and how much ground it covered. This image shows the area before the collapse
Then, they worked with computer modelling experts to virtually replicate the avalanche. This image shows the aftermath
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To investigate the July phenomenon, the researcher used satellite and GPS data to precisely measure how much ice fell, and how much ground it covered. Then, they worked with computer modelling experts to virtually replicate the avalanche

THEORIES ON THE COLLAPSE 

It’s previously been suggested that a process known as ‘surging’ could have been to blame.

This is the unusually rapid flow of ice from the upper part of a glacier to the lower part – but it hasn’t previously bene known to cause sudden avalanches.

In western Tibet, which has remained stable and where increased snowfall has in some cases even led to the expansion of glaciers, collapses are unprecedented.

The researchers now say this extra snowfall may have contributed to the meltwater as temperatures have increased in recent years.

The meltwater would have helped to lubricate the ice, speeding it up as it traveled down the mountain.

In a new study, researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences collaborated with glaciologists from Ohio State University to investigate the cause of the July 17 tragedy.

On that day, ice broke free from the Aru glacier and buried 3.7 miles of the valley floor.

According to witnesses, this all happened in just four or five minutes.

The researchers say something must have been present to lubricate the ice, speeding up its flow down the mountain.

Most likely, they say, meltwater was to blame.

‘Given the rate at which the event occurred and the area covered, I think it could only happen in the presence of meltwater,’ said Lonnie Thompson, Distinguished University Professor in the School of Earth Sciences and a research scientist at the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center.

While other glaciers in the region may, too, be vulnerable, the researcher says ‘unfortunately as of today, we have no ability to predict such disasters.’

Just months later, in September, a neighbouring glacier also gave way.

To investigate the July phenomenon, the researcher used satellite and GPS data to precisely measure how much ice fell, and how much ground it covered.

Then, they worked with computer modelling experts to virtually replicate the avalanche.

This revealed that meltwater was likely the only condition that could have caused the avalanche.

A deadly avalanche that dumped 70 million tons of ice into a valley below the mountains of western Tibet this summer was likely the result of climate change, researchers warn

‘We still don’t know exactly where the meltwater came from, but given that the average temperature at the nearest weather station has risen by about 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) over the last 50 years, it makes sense that snow and ice are melting and the resulting water is seeping down beneath the glacier,’ Thompson said.

It’s previously been suggested that a process known as ‘surging’ could have been to blame.

This is the unusually rapid flow of ice from the upper part of a glacier to the lower part – but it hasn’t previously bene known to cause sudden avalanches.

For decades, western Tibet has managed to resist the effects of climate change, though glaciers in other areas have experienced melting at an accelerating rate.

In western Tibet, where increased snowfall has in some cases led to the expansion of glaciers, collapses are unprecedented.

The researchers now say this extra snowfall may have contributed to the meltwater, and the avalanche.

 

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