Uttarakhand: The making of the 'Himalayan tsunami'

Hyderabad:  What really happened in those fateful 48 hours in the Kedarnath valley and all over Uttarakhand that led to such a massive 'flash flood' that killed thousands of people washing away villages?

NDTV collated hundreds of satellite images, spoke to the best experts to piece together the atmospheric and land-based events that catapulted into such a horrible tragedy now described as a Himalayan tsunami. (Watch)

A few days before the tragedy, normalcy prevailed in Uttarakhand. Pilgrims went about their religious customs, unmindful of the lurking dangers. But the normalcy was superficial.

Respected Himalayan geologist KS Valdiya says he sounded the alarm many times but it fell on deaf ears.

"Himalayas are not only prone, it is, I would say, extremely prone to landslides, recurrent landslides, disastrous landslides, which have taken a toll on hundreds of people of the villages located in the zone," he says. "As a matter of fact, many of the enlightened public knew about this except those who are the planners who undertake development."

Harrowing accounts have emerged of the flash floods that swept through the Kedarnath town on June 16 and 17. In those 48 hours, about 33 centimetres of rain fell in what is being described as a massive cloudburst or as some have now christened it 'Sky Fall'.

K Vinod Kumar, geologist, National Remote Sensing Center, Hyderabad says, "The Kedarnath town itself is situated in a glaciated valley which is fed by two major glaciers on the northern part. So the whole area, geomorphically, is vulnerable, and in the surrounding areas, we have a lot of landslides. So if you see this valley... the depression has the influence of the landslides, debris coming from the glaciers and also a chance of this glacier lake getting burst."

When the waters came, it pierced right through the Kedarnath town itself causing havoc in its wake, taking down with it buildings that had no business to be there in the first place.

But what caused the massive rainfall?

LS Rathore, Director General, India Meteorological Department, says, "First and foremost, a low pressure belt formed in the Bay of Bengal and moved over mainland. At the same time, a trough in westerlies, which we normally call western disturbances, also came over the same longitude over Uttarakhand and therefore, all these things combined together led to a very steep rise in instability and the entire moisture content which was available precipitated."   

Rain over snow was a lethal combination.

According to V Venkateshwar Rao, Hydrologist, National Remote Sensing Center, Hyderabad, "The rain together with the snow meltout would have added heavy runoff into the area. So it was found that the run off started increasing into the lake which is located at the Chorabari Glacier which created a poundage." This led to the first wave of the flood on June 16, 2013.

A second flood swept through Kedarnath town on July 17, 2013 morning.

DP Dobhal, glaciologist, Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology, Dehradun, says, "Early in the morning on 17th, an eyewitness in our team, who was there, saw the lake burst at 7 am. It rushed and took a lot of water together and just removed all the sediments, glacier material and threw it down the valley. And as you know, there is a 300 meter drop. The slope was almost steep. This is only a five-minute story. All the water was vacated in just five minutes and it took all the material on the way to the Kedarnath temple area."

Why were there so many landslides?

Tapas Ranjan Martha, landslide specialist, National Remote Sensing Center, Hyderabad says: "Himalaya is a young and active mountain and landslides are the natural degradation process in such areas. We have analysed after this event, the pre- and the post- images. We have found numerous occurrences of landslides in the remote areas, particularly in the higher reaches. We have also seen landsides in the downstream areas which have also swept out roads."

But is climate change the culprit?

J Srinivasan of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, feels, "You cannot prove that this one event was caused by global warming but we know that the chances of an extreme event like this has increased by 50 per cent in the last fifty years."

Myths busted: There has been speculation that the melting of glaciers combined with the huge fracture on the ice caps over the Kedar Dome peaks were precipitating factors.

Dobhal says it is not true. "The Kedar dome is far from the Kedarnath. There is no concern of the Kedarnath dome in this regard and regarding climate change, we can't say. We can't comment on this climate change because this is an extreme event. Such type of rainfall we have never seen before in June. But immediately, we can't say anything. We can't co-relate this thing to the climate change."

The truth may never be known but this was the most plausible scenario reconstructed to show what happened high in the Himalayas that led to the making of such a monstrous Himalayan tsunami.

The Kedarnath temple itself withstood the onslaught. Possibly no divine intervention, but human ingenuity saved the temple, its massive granite walls are three meters thick, made hundreds of years ago by the ancient architects.  In 1882, it stood lonely but today it is a crowded mess.

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