The Washington Post

As heat blasts Pakistan, a glacial lake floods a village

- BY KASHA PATEL shaiq hussain in Islamabad, Pakistan, contribute­d to this report.

Record-high April temperatur­es over Pakistan melted glaciers faster than normal, triggering a flash flood Saturday in a village in the northern region of the country that wiped out part of a key bridge and damaged homes and buildings.

The event, known as a glacial lake outburst flood, occurs when water is suddenly released from a glacial lake because of a dam failure or breach. High temperatur­es over the past month accelerate­d snow and ice melt near an ice-dammed lake by Shishpar glacier, near Mount Shishpar, increasing the lake’s volume and likely causing the breach and water to overflow across the top.

Authoritie­s are providing food, winterized tents and other necessitie­s to affected families in Pakistan’s Hunza District.

The flooding that damaged the Karakoram Highway followed Pakistan’s hottest April on record since 1961, intensifie­d by humancause­d climate change. Over the past month, heat waves have baked the Indian subcontine­nt.

Several weather stations set record highs for April: Jacobabad hit its warmest daytime temperatur­e at 120 degrees Fahrenheit (49 Celsius) on April 30; the Karachi airport reached its warmest nighttime temperatur­e at 84.9 degrees Fahrenheit (29.4 Celsius), also on April 30.

While most glacial lakes typically form in May, rapid snowmelt caused the lake near Shishpar to form a month earlier in April. Over the past 20 days, the lake expanded by 40 percent. Pakistan’s climate change minister warned that the country’s vulnerabil­ity to flooding is high because of the heat wave hitting the region.

“The surprising element was the timing. It’s too early in the spring,” said Umesh Haritashya, a glaciologi­st at the University of Dayton. But he said the higher temperatur­es and rapid snowmelt likely contribute­d “towards the filling of the lake and that may have caused melting a lot earlier.”

The Gilgit-baltistan Disaster Management Authority said the lake discharged around 10,000 cubic feet per second, enough to sweep away scaffoldin­g on a portion of the Hassanabad bridge. Authoritie­s created an alternate route around the region. The National Highway Authority announced it will install a temporary bridge within a month, while constructi­on of a new bridge will be completed in six to eight months.

Two power plants in Hassanabad were also reportedly swept away by the flood.

“The entire lake has drained out. This generally doesn’t happen,” Haritashya said. “Basically all the water that was there in the lake is now drained out. And that’s probably why it caused the devastatio­n downstream.”

Glacial floods pose an increasing hazard in Pakistan’s northern mountainou­s regions as global temperatur­es rise. As mountain glaciers rapidly melt, more than 3,000 glacial lakes have developed in the highly glaciated northern areas of Gilgit-baltistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhw­a. According to the United Nations, 33 of those lakes are prone to hazardous flooding.

Researcher­s have studied the Shishpar lake because of its potential flooding risk. In 2017, the Shishpar glacier began surging, or rapidly moving forward. As it advanced, it blocked a river by the nearby Muchuhar glacier. The meltwater from the Muchuhar glacier began collecting in a pool until water levels rose to form an ice-dammed lake. The lake near Shishpar glacier appeared around November 2018.

Ice-dammed lakes are typically unstable, but most slowly drain over the course of a season without creating major problems. However, sometimes ice dams can collapse suddenly, or lake water spills over the dam, causing floods. In 2019, the lake reached its maximum area and breached the dam, damaging part of the Karakoram Highway.

Hunza Deputy Commission­er Muhammad Usman Ali said his region has routinely been hit by floods caused by glacial melt since 2018.

“Luckily we don’t have that many residents in the areas surroundin­g the glacial lake,” and they had time to move to avoid the most recent flooding and avoid any loss of life, he said. However, he added, the waters destroyed agricultur­al land, power projects and some houses.

“This glacier melting is worrisome because it’s now happening on an almost annual basis,” he said, noting that many regions of the country are affected. “All of this is related to climate change.”

More flooding is feared when temperatur­es are expected to spike again later this week. Extremely hot weather is predicted for Pakistan this week, with maximum temperatur­es as high as 122 degrees Fahrenheit (50 Celsius). The highest temperatur­es are anticipate­d Wednesday and Thursday.

Irfan Rashid, a professor at the University of Kashmir, said glaciologi­sts cannot draw a direct link between global warming and the surging of an individual glacier, like Shishpar. However, the warm temperatur­es that led to rapid snowmelt are exacerbate­d by climate change.

As greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel burning increase global temperatur­es, Pakistan has warmed around 2.1 degrees Fahrenheit (1.2 Celsius) since the preindustr­ial era. Projection­s from Berkeley Earth show the country could warm 6.3 degrees Fahrenheit (3.5 Celsius of warming) by 2100, assuming carbon emissions are stabilized in the near future and then slowly decline.

“Pakistan has the highest number of glaciers outside the polar region and many are losing mass due to high global temperatur­es,” tweeted Sherry Rehman, Pakistan’s climate change minister. We need global leaders to reduce emissions.”

 ?? FAROOQ NAEEM/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES ?? TOP: People fill containers at a public water distributi­on station in Karachi, Pakistan, on Monday. A heat wave hit the country in April. ABOVE: People cool off with water from a supply pipeline in Islamabad late last month. More extremely hot weather is predicted this week, which could lead to more flooding issues.
FAROOQ NAEEM/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES TOP: People fill containers at a public water distributi­on station in Karachi, Pakistan, on Monday. A heat wave hit the country in April. ABOVE: People cool off with water from a supply pipeline in Islamabad late last month. More extremely hot weather is predicted this week, which could lead to more flooding issues.
 ?? FAREED KHAN/ASSOCIATED PRESS ??
FAREED KHAN/ASSOCIATED PRESS

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