June 13, 2024

Guwahati, India — Indian rescue teams searched Thursday for 102 people missing after a devastating flash flood triggered by a high-altitude glacial lake burst that killed at least 10 people, officials said. Violent flooding from glacier lakes dammed by loose rock has become more frequent as global temperatures rise and ice melts.

Climate scientists have warned the floods pose an increasing danger across the wider Himalayan mountain range — and the melting causing them to the entire world.

“At least 10 people were killed and 102 others reported missing,” Prabhakar Rai, director of the Sikkim state disaster management authority, told AFP a day after a wall of water rushed down the mountainous valley in northeastern India.

Members of the Indian Army try to recover trucks that were buried by mud after flash flooding in Sikkim, in an undated image released by the Indian Army on Oct. 5, 2023. / Credit: India Army/Handout/REUTERSMembers of the Indian Army try to recover trucks that were buried by mud after flash flooding in Sikkim, in an undated image released by the Indian Army on Oct. 5, 2023. / Credit: India Army/Handout/REUTERS

Authorities said roads were “severely” damaged and 14 bridges washed away. Rescuers were battling to help those hit by the flood, with communications cut across large areas and roads blocked.

“Floodwaters have caused havoc in four districts of the state, sweeping away people, roads, bridges,” Himanshu Tiwari, an Indian Army spokesman, told AFP.

Twenty-two soldiers were among the missing, the army said.

The army was working to reestablish telephone connections and provide “medical aid to tourists and locals stranded,” it said in a statement.

An area hit by flooding unleashed by a glacial lake bursting its banks is seen in an undated handout image released Oct. 4, 2023, in Sikkim, India. / Credit: India Army/Handout/REUTERSAn area hit by flooding unleashed by a glacial lake bursting its banks is seen in an undated handout image released Oct. 4, 2023, in Sikkim, India. / Credit: India Army/Handout/REUTERS

The water surge came after intense rainfall sent water gushing over the banks of the high-altitude Lhonak Lake, which sits at the base of a glacier in peaks surrounding the world’s third-highest mountain, Kangchenjunga.

Himalayan glaciers are melting faster than ever due to climate change, exposing communities to unpredictable and costly disasters, according to the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) research group.

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Water powered downstream, adding to a river already swollen by monsoon rains, damaging a dam, sweeping away houses and bridges, and causing “serious destruction”, the Sikkim state government said.

Damage was recorded more than 75 miles downstream, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised “all possible support” for those affected.

Lhonak Lake shrunk by nearly two-thirds in size, an area roughly equivalent to about 150 soccer fields, satellite photographs released by the Indian Space Research Organization showed.

“Intense rain has led to this catastrophic situation in Sikkim where the rain has triggered a glacial lake outburst flood and damaged a dam, and caused loss of life,” said Miriam Jackson, a scientist specializing in ice who monitors Himalayan regions with the Nepal-based ICIMOD.

“We observe that such extreme events increase in frequency as the climate continues to warm and takes us into unknown territory.”

A similar tragedy in India left dozens dead in 2021, when a glacial lake burst its banks in the northern Himalayan state of Uttarakhand.

Earth’s average surface temperature has risen nearly 1.2 degrees Celsius (about 2 degrees Fahrenheit) since pre-industrial times but high-mountain regions around the world have warmed at twice that pace, climate scientists say.

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