MELTING POINT

Climate change could be to blame for an unusual avalanche in Tibet that can be seen from space

A giant ice avalanche in Tibet covered several miles of land, and the primary suspect is climate change.

On July 17, a glacier in Rutog county in western Tibet suddenly slid, causing one of the largest ice avalanches ever documented. About 3,500 cubic feet of ice and rocks cascaded through a narrow valley, killing nine herders along with more than 350 sheep and 110 yaks in the remote village of Dungru.

Satellite images from the European Space Agency and NASA captured how the relatively flat area looked before and after getting covered with nearly 3.8 square miles of debris.

tibetian-ice-avalanche-before-and-after-satellite-images
Before/After (NASA Earth Observatory/Joshua Stevens)

Catastrophic as it is, scientists are puzzled about the cause behind the avalanche, which started at a relative flat point at 17,000 to 20,300 ft above sea level. But as Nature reports, global warming is partly to blame since it could have caused a rare type of glacier surge, when the glacier periodically moves 10 to 100 times faster than normally. Water coming from rain and melted ice carved into the glacier could have triggered the sudden collapse. During the last half century, temperatures in the Tibetan plateau have increased at twice the global average per decade.

The only known natural disaster that’s similar happened in 2002 from the Kolka Glacier in the Caucasus Mountains in Russia, which killed 140 people.

Photo credit: NASA Earth Observatory/Joshua Stevens

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