Unnatural Disaster: How Global Warming Helped Cause India’s Catastrophic Flood

Photo retrieved from: www.e360.yale.edu

“The flood had severed the eight-mile footpath to Kedarnath from the rest of India. Kaul took a bus to Guptkashi, the closest town with public transport, but nearly 25 miles short of Kedarnath. He continued on foot, astonished at the scale of destruction even so far downstream. The flood had passed through Kedarnath and surged down the Mandakini, joined by swollen tributaries, gathering force and debris. Kaul saw bare abutments where bridges had stood and foundationless houses dangling above landslide scars. Thirty hydroelectric plants had been damaged or destroyed.

About four miles shy of Kedarnath, he came to the former site of Rambara, a way station that once had about 100 seasonal shopping stalls and several small hotels. Pilgrims had rested there over sweet, milky tea and fried flatbreads and bought camping supplies and religious trinkets. Kaul saw only an empty shelf of bedrock strewn with boulders. “One couldn’t imagine there’d been anything there,” he said later.

Some of of Kedarnath’s steel-reinforced concrete guesthouses and stuccoed fieldstone homes survived better. Still, nearly three quarters of its 259 buildings had been damaged. More than half had been battered and washed away. The flood took most of its victims in Kedarnath, the season’s first pilgrims. “They were still finding dead people,” Kaul recalled, noting that he had smelled rotting flesh and watched relief workers excavate a severed leg.

Kaul climbed steep hills to an overlook about 2,000 feet above the town. The top of a hulking mountain, nearly 23,000 feet tall and crowned by Chorabari glacier, appeared. It blocked the sky at the head of the valley. At an inflection point, where the slope leveled off, a vast tongue of ice stretched out for a mile. Kaul looked for Chorabari Tal. It should have been visible below him, near the tongue’s tip. But there was no lake to be seen.

Titanic geologic forces had forged Chorabari Tal during the widespread cold spell that lasted from about 1300 to 1870 and is known as the Little Ice Age. The glacier had bulldozed stone into linear piles — moraines — jammed between the advancing tongue and the valley’s bedrock rim. The ice had then receded, leaving the lake’s lens-shaped basin, a depression with no outlet. Rain and melted snow filled it every spring and summer. At times, water drained out through the porous moraine, and the water level dropped.

Now, as Kaul looked down, he saw that the basin was empty. He knew what had occurred: The moraine had ruptured, letting loose the lake’s entire contents in a catastrophic spasm.”

Read more: Yale Environment 360

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