Satellite-Based Monitoring Is Needed to Prepare for Catastrophic Himalayan Floods

Aptly called Earth’s “Third Pole,” the Himalayan region is home to the largest ice mass outside of the planet’s polar regions. However, rising temperatures and extreme precipitation events make the region increasingly prone to a variety of natural hazards, including devastating glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs).

In a Perspective, Tanuj Shukla and Indra Sen argue that satellite-based real-time monitoring is urgently needed for Himalayan glacial catchments to better understand flood risk in the region and to inform an early flood warning system that could help curb disaster and save human lives.

GLOFs occur when either a natural dam containing a glacial lake bursts or when the lake’s level suddenly increases and overflows its banks, leading to catastrophic downstream destruction. For example, in 2013, an avalanche caused the glacial moraine holding back Chorabari Lake in northern India to give way, releasing a sudden torrent of water, boulders and debris that scoured the river valley below, resulting in the deaths of more than 5,000 people.

The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite observed the flooding on June 21, 2013. Image: NASA Earth Observatory

With climate change, these events are likely to increase in frequency and magnitude throughout the Himalayas. However, the remote, challenging Himalayan terrain and the overall lack of cellular connectivity throughout the region have made the development of early flood warning systems virtually impossible. Shukla and Sen suggest that efforts to help mitigate GLOF events in the future should include the creation of a network of satellite-based monitoring stations that could provide in situ and real-time data on GLOF risk.

“The integration of monitoring devices with satellite networks will not only provide telemetry support in remote locations that lack complete cellular connectivity but will also provide greater connectivity in coverage in the cellular dead zones in extreme topographies such as valleys, cliffs and steep slopes,” write the authors.

Source: American Association for the Advancement of Science